Through Romantic Eyes: Our Relationship with the Nile Today

In Shelley’s poem, the river provides a warning about ‘the overarching excesses of human ambition’.

It gave me pleasure to find a wide range of poems about the Nile collated and translated in one volume by Hassan Hegazy. Perhaps most intriguing are the somewhat orientalist poems of the three Romantic poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), John Keats (1795-1821), and James Leigh Hunt (1784-1859). Interestingly, the three poets wrote their poems which are translated in this volume in direct competition with one another,[1] and as friends, they were members of one literary circle.[2] Shelley writes that on 4 February 1818, the three poets gathered at Hunt’s house and had a sonnet writing competition, with a fifteen minute time limit and the Nile as the subject. Hunt did not stick to the time limit; Shelley and Keats did.[3] Nevertheless, this points towards the poets’ clear visions of the Nile and what is represents, and the Romantic idea of poetry being, as William Wordsworth puts it, a ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’.[4]

Indeed, in their original form, these sonnets (poems formed of a single fourteen-line stanza) are in the Italian or Petrarchan style, formed of an octave (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines). There is an invitation, of sorts, to read the final sestet in isolation as a summary, and in these three sonnets, the poets all relate the Nile to knowledge. In particular, Shelley writes: ‘Beware O Man–for knowledge must to thee | Like the great flood to Egypt, ever be–’,[5] and Keats states that ‘‘Tis ignorance that makes a barren waste | Of all beyond itself’.[6] The translator, Hegazy, brings to light his own interpretation of Shelley’s remark, as he finalises the translation with the addition of:

ملبدة ً   بالشرِ ِ أو  حافلة ً  بالخيرِْ

In Hegazy’s translation, it becomes clear that human knowledge, like the Nile’s floods, can be a source of both good and evil.

At a time when the Nile is becoming increasingly polluted, such a statement carries a degree of poignancy, because despite the increasing modernisation and industrial advances in Egypt, the state of the Nile has been in constant deterioration. It is quite fitting, then, that such an implication comes in a poem by Shelley, a Romantic poet, writing in the early nineteenth century when England’s Industrial Revolution was rife, and in turn, environmental pollution was at a high. While at present, most debate is centred on the ownership of water across the Nile Basin, one cannot forget that the Nile within Egypt remains a responsibility, particularly as studies have shown that the majority of the sewage releases to the river take place in Lower Egypt.[7]

Indeed, in Shelley’s poem, the river provides a warning about ‘the overarching excesses of human ambition’.[8] This is made all the more clear in the lines: ‘That soul-sustaining airs and blasts of evil | And fruits and poisons spring where’er thou flowest’.[9] Here, ‘the Nile both produces a flourishing civilization and corrupts it’,[10] much as the state of the Nile today differentiates crudely between those who wish for Egypt to flourish, and those who are indifferent. Here, Hegazy translates in a similarly paratactic style using conjunctions to give a sense of the flowing water, and how these ‘airs’, ‘blasts’, ‘fruits’, and ‘poisons’, despite their differences, exist simultaneously:

أن النسماتِ  الروحية  الجليلة

وعواصفَ  الشرِ  الكريهة

والفاكهة البديعة , والسموم المُميتة

كلها تجري حيثُ  تمضي

We see, here, both responsibility and knowledge; in fact, they appear intertwined, because in seeking excess knowledge, humans can forget their responsibilities. Importantly, Shelley juxtaposes the ‘fruits’ and ‘poisons’, serving as a reminder of how positive knowledge can be, but how excess ambition can result in downfall. The fruit is a reminder of Adam and Eve, whose ambition was excessive, and by eating from the Tree of Knowledge, they defied the knowledge that they already possessed. As the Nile’s pleasing water can turn into an undesirable flood, fruit can become a poison. Moreover, the Nile should literally provide ‘fruits’ not ‘poisons’, and so at a metaphoric level today, we are reminded that the Nile has provided healthy drinking water for centuries, but that excessive desires have resulted in its pollution, which can turn its water into a health threat.

 When it comes to Keats, his comment on ignorance in relation to the usage of land surrounding the Nile is another indication of human responsibility:

فهو الجهلُ  الذي  جعلَ

تلكَ  المساحات  القاحلة   الصفراء

تمتدُ  طويلا ً  طويلا

It is worth noting that Keats mentions rivers in his ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ (1819), in which the poetic persona describes a beautiful urn which contains images of lovers, nature and melody. He is both happy and disappointed with the paradox of its lifelessness. Most strikingly, he ends the ode with the ambiguous lines: ‘“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all | Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know’.[11] On face value, this can suggest that the urn’s lifelessness does reduce its beauty, or perhaps Keats is suggesting that the urn’s beauty is what makes it speak truth. On the other hand, though, it appears that fulfilment of the beauty and love represented by the urn is not necessarily a good thing, because it results in responsibility and hardship. Much like the urn, there exists a beauty in the unchanging truth of poetry about the Nile, particularly as this poetry was written two centuries ago. But this river is a tangible truth; that is what makes it beautiful, but also what makes us feel responsibility towards it and pain because of its state. As we read Hegazy’s translated anthology, we realise the majesty of the Nile in a way we may not as we go about our everyday lives. Indeed, first and foremost, Hegazy’s book serves as a reminder of how much we value the River Nile.

Islam Issa holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Birmingham, United Kingdom, where he is currently a Visiting Lecturer in English Literature.

 

[1] Stephen Gray, ‘Keats to Ritchie’, The Keats-Shelley Review 24.1 (2010), p. 30.

[2] Jeffrey Cox, Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School: Keats, Shelley, Hunt and their Circle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[3] The Complete Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Donald Reiman, Neil Fraistat, and Nora Crook (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press), p. 551. Quotations from the poem are from this edition.

[4] William Wordsworth, ‘Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800/1802)’, in Wordsworth & Coleridge: Lyrical Ballads & Other Poems (Chatham: Wordsworth Library, 2003), pp. 8, 21.

[5] Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘To the Nile’, ll. 13-14.

[6] John Keats, ‘To the Nile’, ll. 10-11. Quotations from Keats’s poetry are from The Poems of John Keats, ed. Paul Wright (Ware: Wordsworth Library, 2001).

[7] Mostafa El-Sheekh, ‘River Nile pollutants and their effect on life forms and water quality’, The Nile (2009), pp. 395-405.

[8] Michael Rossington, ‘Shelley and the Orient’, The Keats-Shelley Review 6.1 (1991), pp. 18-36 (25).

[9] Shelley, ll. 11-12.

[10] Rossington, p. 26.

[11] John Keats, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, ll. 49-50.