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This is John Keats’s classic Petrarchan sonnet “To the Nile”, which was written two hundred years ago in a style more ancient still:

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.

It is clear that the poet-narrator asks the River Nile "are you fruitful" personifying it. But I couldn't make out whether the subsequent line "Rest for space 'twixt Cairo and Decan" refers to the men in the poem or not.

(Some annotations suggest that it refers to the River Nile.)

Clarification will be appreciated.

2 Answers 2

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Yes, the Rest clause refers to the men.

You can think of the quote as "... dost thou beguile such men to honour thee, who [given their condition], [now lie between two locations]".

That is, in the quote, it is the men who are "worn with toil" that "Rest ...".

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  • But, what does the word "Rest for" mean? Is it same as "Rest in space between cairo and decan? Here I m of the opinion that poet used old english as a "symbol" to denote antiquity of the Nile. Apr 9, 2023 at 15:40
  • ...and "rest for a space" perhaps means "relax for a while". Apr 9, 2023 at 15:41
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    One of the definitions of space is 'an interval of time'. This isn't Old English, which was what the Anglo-Saxons spoke; it is written in a style resembling Early Modern English, which was considered appropriate for serious poetry in Keats's day. Apr 9, 2023 at 16:15
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    Thanks for the clarification. It is very helpful indeed Apr 9, 2023 at 16:46
  • @Selfiegroupie I think the others have covered it, though in the initial question, the word beguile without the full poem suggested the possibility that "rest" was a euphemism for death.
    – Lawrence
    Apr 10, 2023 at 18:06
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... or dost thou beguile such men [to honour thee], who [, worn with toil,] rest for a space ’twixt Cairo and Decan?

First remove the clauses and phrases that merely qualify nouns. I have put them in parentheses [].

Second, replace the old usage 'twixt by between

Cambridge
'twixt
preposition, old use or literary
between

We are left with:
... or dost thou beguile such men, who rest for a space between Cairo and Decan?

It follows that it is the men who rest, not the Nile.

It may be tempting to think place refers to a geographic location between Cairo and Decan. However, decan is a star or group of stars. There are 36 such groups:

Britannica
The decans are 36 star configurations circling the sky somewhat to the south of the ecliptic.

So Keats is alluding to men who rest {for a space} between Cairo and a decan.

But the decan moves in the sky, so the space as a fixed geographical position cannot be defined.

The more likely meaning of space is:

Cambridge
space noun (TIME)
an amount of time

In conclusion, Keats seems to be alluding to men who rest for a time between Cairo and a decan (which only stays in the sky for a limited period). It is possible that Keats, who used opium, is seeking a mystical conflation of the ideas of space (Cairo) and astronomic time (decan).

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  • Decan is the name of the geographic peninsula upon which the country of India is found and the capitalization would appear to refer to a proper noun rather than an ordinary noun, but that might be accidental, and the reading given here where it refers to stars does make some good sense.
    – ohwilleke
    Apr 10, 2023 at 0:52
  • nailed it.... Thank you very much... Apr 10, 2023 at 1:21
  • @ohwilleke I considered that possibility but discounted it because I could find no reference to a spelling as “Decan”. It is always “Deccan”. Consequently, the Egyptian notion of a star configuration seems the only relevant possibility.
    – Anton
    Apr 10, 2023 at 6:07
  • @Anton During the life of John Keats (31 October 1795 – 23 February 1821), spelling wasn't as standardized as it is today.
    – ohwilleke
    Apr 10, 2023 at 17:55
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    @ohwilleke Indeed so, but it seems most unlikely that Keats would have confused Africa (which contains all of the Nile) with a distant area of India (which contains none of the Nile). However, it is an abstruse poem and I doubt we shall ever come to a firm conclusion.
    – Anton
    Apr 10, 2023 at 20:27

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