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The following poems were written in February of 1818, in a friendly competition of the sort common at Leigh Hunt's Hampstead home. John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley were both there that night, and all three, Keats, Hunt, and Shelley wrote sonnets about the Nile River.

Hunt's poem succeeds in capturing one basic thought, the idea of rivers outliving the civilizations built around them, carrying onward with them some sense of past or history. There are a number of nice phrases here, "Like some grave mighty thought threading a dream," and a few rather awkward ones: "And times and things." Understanding that Hunt is not the same caliber of poet as Keats and Shelley, then his "A Thought of the Nile" is a fine attempt.

Keats' "To the Nile" reads like it was written in fifteen minutes. To his credit, it was written in fifteen minutes, but really, that's hardly an excuse. It does retain a certain Keatsian elegance to it, which makes it fun to read, unless of course you try to figure out what he's talking about here. He gets stuck on the idea that there's something wrong with calling a river that flows through a desert fruitful, and muses on this for fourteen lines. The poem is almost redeemed with the line "Tis ignorance that makes a barren waste of all beyond itself."


A Thought of the Nile

It flows through old hushed Egypt and its sands,
Like some grave mighty thought threading a dream,
And times and things, as in that vision, seem
Keeping along it their eternal stands,--
Caves, pillars, pyramids, the shepherd bands
That roamed through the young world, the glory extreme
Of high Sesostris, and that southern beam,
The laughing queen that caught the world's great hands.

Then comes a mightier silence, stern and strong,
As of a world left empty of its throng,
And the void weighs on us; and then we wake,
And hear the fruitful stream lapsing along
Twixt villages, and think how we shall take
Our own calm journey on for human sake.

by Leigh Hunt


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 sun-rise, green isles hast thou too,
And to the sea as happily dost haste.

by John Keats


I have so far been unable to locate Shelley's Nile sonnet, but will add it here as soon as I can find it.

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