Monday, October 31, 2016

"To the Nile" by John Keats - an analysis



To the Nile
Son of the old Moon-mountains African!
Chief of the Pyramid and Crocodile!
We call thee fruitful, and that very while
A desert fills our seeing's inward span:
Nurse of swart nations since the world began,
Art thou so fruitful? or dost thou beguile
Such men to honour thee, who, worn with toil,
Rest for a space 'twixt Cairo and Decan?
O may dark fancies err! They surely do;
'Tis ignorance that makes a barren waste
Of all beyond itself. Thou dost bedew
Green rushes like our rivers, and dost taste
The pleasant sunrise. Green isles hast thou too,
And to the sea as happily dost haste.

Keats said to have composed this sonnet in a friendly competition with his fellow Romantics Leigh Hunt and P B Shelly. A Petrarchan sonnet has an octave rhyming abbaabba and a sestet rhyming cdcdcd. The Volta or the turn of the line of thought occurs from the octave to the sestet. In this sonnet also line number 9 marks a change of thought: thinking of the Nile as a holy/mysterious river vs. thinking of the Nile as an ordinary river.

In Greek mythology Nilus is considered the god of the Nile River. The poem traces the course of the Nile from the legendary sub-Saharan Moon Mountains to the Mediterranean Sea, and how it turns some parts of Egypt into fertile oases within a desert. The poem is written in the second person, the poetic persona addresses a personified Nile directly as a sentient being. In the octave the poet acknowledges the ancient fame of and the reverence paid to the river. “Son of the Old Moon-Mountains African!”  - The poetic techniques used here are inversion and personification. In addition, this is also an invocation to a supernatural power in the form of the Nile. Then in the second line the Nile is invoked as the “Chief of the Pyramid and Crocodile”- the blocks of limestone and marble that were used to build the great pyramids in Egypt were transported using the Nile. Hence, it is the Chief of the Pyramids. On the banks of the Nile one finds huge crocodiles. The Son, the Chief, and the Nurse are references to the different roles of the Niles. 

In the third and fourth lines the poet refers to a contradiction - “We call thee fruitful and that very while[y1] / A desert fills our seeing's inward span” – fruitfulness and barrenness, two extremes, exist side by side. In the next line the river Nile is invoked as the nurse for the Africans. Yet the poet immediately questions the truth value of his own invocation with the question “[a]rt thou so fruitful?” followed by another rhetorical question:  “or dost thou beguile/Such men to honour thee, who, worn with toil,/Rest for a space 'twixt Cairo and Decan?”  The poet is questioning the fruitfulness/nurturing qualities of the river. He is wondering whether people have called the river fruitful only in comparison to what lay on either side of it as well as because it offered "rest for a space 'twixt Cairo and Decan." He is asking whether the river had fooled the various nations of people who travelled between Cairo and Decan (Deccan?) – travellers of the ancient Silk Rout – into worshiping it? Here, it is possible that Keats may be referring to the numerous ancient temples dedicated to Osiris along the River which were worshipped by travellers, too.

“O may dark fancies err!” – the sestet begins with a prayer/ a deeply felt wish (to the Nile/ the gods of Egypt?) for his dark thoughts/ doubts about the fruitfulness of the Nile to be false. Then he affirms with certainty that his fancies were indeed wrong: “They surely do.” Here, Keats is critical of his imagination or ‘negative[y2]  capability’ as he calls it. Keats says that “'Tis ignorance that makes a barren waste/ Of all beyond itself.” Here, Keats might be talking about our ignorance about the Nile or things/people in general. Ignorant people assume everything beyond what is familiar to be a barren waste. In the same way the Europeans of Keats’ age had either romanticized or demonized the rest of the world. Keats strives to see a similarity between the rivers of England and the Nile. But this attempt to positively evaluate the Nile in comparison to English rivers, too, smacks of the European superiority complex as the Nile as the longest river of the world is far superior to a river like the Avon, one of the longest rivers in England. In the same way, if one is to compare the European and African civilizations from a cultural relativist point of view, then one might be doing injustice to something that is much older.

In the last four lines the poet looks at the river from aesthetic point of view and describes its journey to the sea using typically sensuous Keatsian language. The repetition of green contrasts with the repetition of desert in the octave.

Thou dost bedew
Green rushes like our rivers, and dost taste
The pleasant sunrise. Green isles hast thou too,
And to the sea as happily dost haste.


 [y1]once a year the Nile floods depositing rich loamy mud on the banks of the river making it ideal for agriculture. The Egyptian god Hapi is associated with flooding of the river, thus bringing fertility and fruitfulness. According to Egyptian mythology, the Nile itself is considered as a symbol of fertility. When the Egyptian god Osiris was killed and his body parts were scattered by his brother Seth his genitals were supposed to be eaten by a crocodile so that his wife could not resurrect him into life.
 [y2]Negative capability, according to Keats is ‘when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.'

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