Line by Line Analysis of To the Nile by John Keats





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To the Nile is a sonnet written in Petrarchan style by John Keats. It contains fourteen lines, in which first eight lines are called the Octave and the next six lines are called the Sestet. The ninth line is the changing point which is called the Volta. In the first part Keats day dreams about the myths about the Nile the longest river which was the cradle to one of the ancient civilizations and that very while he awakes from his day dreams questioning its fruitfulness as it flows through a desert. In the second part he gives up analyzing this knowing his limitation of knowledge regarding things beyond himself and start seeing the river as a natural element which is always fruitful and wonderful. 


Son of the old Moon-mountains African!

Personification -  introduces the Nile as the son of old Moon mountains. It refers to the Ruwenzori mountains in East Africa. Poet addresses the river not by its name, but does it in a glorified manner, as if talking to a god or a king.


Chief of the Pyramid and Crocodile!

personification/hyperbole -  The river is again introduced as the chief of the ancient pyramids and crocodile. They may be referring to living and non-living which are great in size. As history reveals, the large stone bricks were transported through the river to build the pyramids and the river is abundant with the world largest crocodiles. 

We call thee fruitful, and that very while
A desert fills our seeing's inward span:

Poet starts doubting the fruitfulness of the river as it flows through a vast desert of Sudan and Egypt. Poet contrasts fruitfulness with barrenness to show his confusion. If the river is so fruitful, how can there be deserts besides its banks? may be the question that troubles his mind.  

Nurse of swart nations since the world began,

Personification – The Nile is introduced as a caretaker of Swart Nations. Swart nations refers to the African people. Since the beginning of the civilization, The Nile has been the source of life for people. It nourished people giving them food and the means of life.

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?

Having introduced as the nurse of swart nations, the poet questions the river about its fruitfulness. He further questions its powers to be real or not?

 (He may be referring to the myths related to The Nile - Keats may be referring to temples dedicated to Osiris which are scattered along the banks of the River. According to the legends, Isis, the wife of Osiris, built those temples to enshrine various parts of his slain body scattered along the Nile by his brother Seth who murdered him.

The Nile River is also steeped in mythology with Hapi being its chief God who is associated with flooding, thus bringing fertility and fruitfulness.)  

He seems to be questioning about the fact that people who lead a life of hard work, turn towards this natural god to seek consolation and share their grievances’ because of the powerful myths fabricated around it. 

Rest for a space may be referring to the area which it covers between the two ends of the river, Cairo and Decan which covers about five countries.



O may dark fancies err! They surely do;
'Tis ignorance that makes a barren waste
Of all beyond itself…

This is the beginning of the second part called Sestet. The 9th line is called Volta which means the change of perspective. The poet suddenly shakes off his day dreaming and comes to the reality. He introduces his doubts as ‘dark fancies’ which can be erroneous. He accepts that the myths and gods are far beyond his level of understanding and further accepts that doubting those things can show one’s ignorance rather than wisdom.   

… 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.


In the last three and half lines, the poet goes on praising the rive Nile whether it is fruitful and venerable or not. He praises the river for being like other rivers, beautiful with green water reeds, and small greenish islands, and for flowing happily down to the sea. 

The use of beautiful visual image appeals to readers’ eyes. The river also tastes ‘pleasant sunrise’. This is a blend of gustatory and visual images. The river also consists of “green isles”. The poet repeatedly uses ‘green’ to bring about an effect of lush greenery which is quite contrary to the repeated term of ‘desert’ in the octave.

The poem has the characteristics of a river itself. It represents a flow of ideas which may twist somewhere in the middle and ends with a smooth flow of words. The twists and turns makes a river beautiful as the flow of ideas makes the poem much enchanting to the reader. 

Some find this poem is hard to read because of the old English terms, however I hope you have got the idea of the poem correctly. If you have any doubts, let’s discuss it in the comment section. To receive new criticisms to your mail box, subscribe to the page.  

Related Posts: 

Analysing the Petrarchan Sonnet Form 

Transitory Nature of Human Attitudes Shown by The Nile by John Keats


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