The sonnet "To the Nile" (1818) by John Keats reads as follows:

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.

What does the poet suggest in the phrase that appears in bold? Does he criticize westerners by saying that ignorant people assume the things to which they are unexposed to be useless?

Moreover, presenting the legendary aspects and general view of the western world on the river Nile, how did he manage to present the reality of the river? Did he travel to Africa or was it also his educated guess?


1 Answer 1


I think the question is right: the poem criticizes descriptions of Egypt by westerners who look at the landscape and see only a barren waste.

The question asks if Keats ever visited Africa. He did not: the only occasion on which he left the British Isles was his journey in September 1820 to Italy (on medical advice: a warm climate was thought to be beneficial for sufferers from tuberculosis), where he died in February 1821.

The sonnet ‘To the Nile’ was written in February 1818, in a friendly competition with Percy Shelley and Leigh Hunt. In a letter to his brothers, Keats wrote:

The Wednesday before last, Shelley, Hunt, and I, wrote each a sonnet† on the river Nile: some day you shall read them all.

John Keats (16 February 1818). Letter to Tom and George Keats. In Richard Monckton Milnes (Lord Houghton), ed. (1867). The Life and Letters of Keats, p. 80. London: Edward Moxon.

† Milnes claimed (p. 81) that Shelley’s contribution was the sonnet ‘Ozymandias’ but that was a mistake. For Shelley’s sonnet, also titled ‘To the Nile’, see William Michael Rossetti, ed. (1878). The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, volume 3, p. 24.

Since Keats had never been to Africa, what sources did he draw on? The French expedition of 1798–1801 had made pioneering scientific and archaeological studies of Egypt, leading to a surge of publications about the country in western Europe in the early decades of the 19th century. I don’t think anyone knows which of these Keats might have read, but Gregory Wassil (‘Keats’ Orientalism’, Studies in Romanticism, 39:3, p. 433) draws our attention to Robert Wilson’s description of the view from the top of the Great Pyramid of Giza, as an illustration of the attitudes of some of Keats’ contemporaries:

The view from hence is frightfully barren; an immeasurable waste of Desert is only interrupted by the narrow flat of cultivated land which separates the Deserts of Lybia and Arabia, nor can that arid soil, and the wretched villages in the valley, afford any scene picturesque or gratifying. The eye can only rest with any pleasure on the waters of the Nile, the island of Rhoda, and some fine orange trees in the neighbourhood of Giza. These only can refresh the aching sight; and yet this view has so fascinated, as to make Savary believe that the poets from hence must have formed their ideas of Elysium, and so enraptured him as to excite his regrets that he could not remain during life in this garden of bliss.† But Savary has proved himself a bad judge of the beautiful in country and women; his paradise placed in Europe would be deserted like a wilderness, and his houri’s become antiquated virgins.

Robert Wilson (1801). History of the British Expedition to Egypt, p. 135. London: C. Roworth.

† The reference is to Claude-Étienne Savary (1787). Letters on Egypt, volume 1, p. 156. “It is in the rich territory which surrounds them [the pyramids of Giza], that fable has placed the Elysian fields.”

So I think the idea in the sonnet is that this conception of Egypt as an “immeasurable waste” of “arid soil” and “wretched villages”, ennobled only by its great antiquity, is a “dark fancy” that errs. The rushes of the Nile must mean as much to the people of Egypt as “the stirs of a swan’s neck unseen among the rushes” in an English river mean to Keats (‘Sleep and Poetry’, 1816).

In drawing these comparisons, Keats transposes something of England onto the Nile to understand it, but he does so with humility. At the volta, he proclaims: “’Tis ignorance that makes a barren waste / Of all beyond itself.” He speaks not of the Nile, whose waters bestow life only on things nearby and leave a barren waste of desert beyond. Rather, Keats levels this comment at his reader, checking the immediate impulse to see a desert (a landscape he does not understand, one that lies beyond his Anglocentric understanding of ecology) as barren. To think Egypt is a barren waste, simply because it does not have the same features England has, is ignorance.

Sarah T. Weston (2021). ‘Dark Desert Earth: Romanticism in the Desert’. The Wordsworth Circle 52:3, p. 396.

  • 2
    Very informative indeed Commented May 8 at 1:13

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