Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
Africa: Vol. XXIV. 1876–79.

Egypt, Nubia, and Abyssinia: Nile, the River

The Nile

By Lucan (39–65 A.D.)

(From Pharsalia, Book X)
Translated by Nicholas Rowe

KNOW then, to all those stars, by nature driven

In opposition to revolving heaven,

Some one peculiar influence was given.

The sun the seasons of the year supplies,

And bids the evening and the morning rise;

Commands the planets with superior force,

And keeps each wandering light to his appointed course.

The silver moon o’er briny seas presides,

And heaves huge ocean with alternate tides.

Saturn’s cold rays in icy climes prevail;

Mars rules the winds, the storm, and rattling hail;

Where Jove ascends, the skies are still serene;

And fruitful Venus is the genial queen;

While every limpid spring and falling stream

Submits to radiant Hermes’ reigning beam.

When in the Crab the humid ruler shines,

And to the sultry Lion near inclines,

There fixed immediate o’er Nile’s latent source,

He strikes the watery stores with ponderous force;

Nor can the flood bright Maia’s son withstand,

But heaves, like ocean at the moon’s command;

His waves ascend, obedient as the seas,

And reach their destined height by just degrees.

Nor to its bank returns the enormous tide,

Till Libra’s equal scales the days and nights divide.

Antiquity, unknowing and deceived,

In dreams of Ethiopian snows believed:

From hills they taught, how melting currents ran,

When the first swelling of the flood began.

But ah, how vain the thought! no Boreas there

In icy bonds constrains the wintry year,

But sultry southern winds eternal rain,

And scorching suns the swarthy natives stain.

Yet more, whatever flood the frost congeals,

Melts as the genial spring’s return he feels;

While Nile’s redundant waters never rise,

Till the hot Dog inflames the summer skies;

Nor to his banks his shrinking stream confines,

Till high in heaven the autumnal balance shines.

Unlike his watery brethren he presides,

And by new laws his liquid empire guides.

From dropping seasons no increase he knows,

Nor feels the fleecy showers of melting snows.

His river swells not idly, ere the land

The timely office of his waves demand;

But knows his lot, by providence assigned,

To cool the season, and refresh mankind,

Whene’er the Lion sheds his fires around,

And Cancer burns Syene’s parching ground;

Then, at the prayer of nations, comes the Nile,

And kindly tempers up the mouldering soil.

Nor from the plains the covering God retreats,

Till the rude fervor of the skies abates;

Till Phœbus into milder autumn fades,

And Meroë projects her lengthening shades.

Nor let inquiring sceptics ask the cause,

’T is Jove’s command, and these are nature’s laws.

Others of old, as vainly too, have thought

By western winds the spreading deluge brought;

While at fixed times, for many a day, they last,

Possess the skies, and drive a constant blast;

Collected clouds united zephyrs bring,

And shed huge rains from many a dropping wing,

To heave the flood, and swell the abounding spring.

Or when the airy brethren’s steadfast force

Resists the rushing current’s downward course,

Backward he rolls indignant, to his head:

While o’er the plains his heapy waves are spread.

Some have believed, that spacious channels go

Through the dark entrails of the earth below;

Through these, by turns, revolving rivers pass,

And secretly pervade the mighty mass;

Through these the sun, when from the north he flies,

And cuts the glowing Ethiopic skies,

From distant streams attracts their liquid stores,

And through Nile’s spring the assembled waters pours:

Till Nile, o’erburdened, disembogues the load,

And spews the foamy deluge all abroad.

Sages there have been, too, who long maintained

That ocean’s waves through porous earth are drained;

’T is thence their saltness they no longer keep,

By slow degrees still freshening as they creep;

Till at a period Nile receives them all,

And pours them loosely spreading, as they fall.

The stars, and sun himself, as some have said,

By exhalations from the deep are fed;

And when the golden ruler of the day

Through Cancer’s fiery sign pursues his way,

His beams attract too largely from the sea;

The refuse of his draughts the nights return,

And more than fill the Nile’s capacious urn.

Were I the dictates of my soul to tell,

And speak the reasons of the watery swell,

To Providence the task I should assign,

And find the cause in workmanship divine.

Less streams we trace, unerring, to their birth,

And know the parent earth which brought them forth:

While this, as early as the world begun,

Ran thus and must continue thus to run;

And still unfathomed by our search, shall own

No cause, but Jove’s commanding will alone.

Nor, Cæsar, is thy search of knowledge strange:

Well may thy boundless soul desire to range,

Well may she strive Nile’s fountain to explore;

Since mighty kings have sought the same before;

Each for the first discoverer would be known,

And hand, to future times, the secret down;

But still their powers were exercised in vain,

While latent Nature mocked their fruitless pain.

Philip’s great son, whom Memphis still records,

The chief of her illustrious sceptred lords,

Sent, of his own, a chosen number forth,

To trace the wondrous stream’s mysterious birth.

Through Ethiopia’s plains they journeyed on,

Till the hot sun opposed the burning zone:

There, by the God’s resistless beams repelled,

An unbeginning stream they still beheld.

Fierce came Sesostris from the eastern dawn,

On his proud car by captive monarchs drawn;

His lawless will, impatient of a bound,

Commanded Nile’s hid fountain to be found:

But sooner much the tyrant might have known

Thy famed Hesperian Po, or Gallic Rhone.

Cambyses, too, his daring Persians led,

Where hoary age makes white the Ethiop’s head;

Till sore distressed and destitute of food,

He stained his hungry jaws with human blood;

Till half his host the other half devoured,

And left the Nile behind them unexplored.

Of thy forbidden head, thou sacred stream,

Nor fiction dares to speak, nor poets dream.

Through various nations roll thy waters down,

By many seen, though still by all unknown;

No land presumes to claim thee for her own.

For me, my humble tale no more shall tell,

Than what our just records demonstrate well;

Than God, who bade thee thus mysterious flow,

Permits the narrow mind of man to know.

Far in the south the daring waters rise,

As in disdain of Cancer’s burning skies;

Thence with a downward course, they seek the main,

Direct against the lazy northern wain;

Unless when, partially, thy winding tide

Turns to the Libyan or Arabian side.

The distant Seres first behold thee flow;

Nor yet thy spring the distant Seres know.

Midst sooty Ethiops next, thy current roams;

The sooty Ethiops wonder whence it comes:

Nature conceals thy infant stream with care,

Nor lets thee, but in majesty, appear.

Upon thy banks astonished nations stand,

Nor dare assign thy rise to one peculiar land.

Exempt from vulgar laws thy waters run,

Nor take their various seasons from the sun;

Though high in heaven the fiery solstice stand,

Obedient winter comes, at thy command.

From pole to pole thy boundless waves extend;

One never knows thy rise, nor one thy end.

By Meroë thy stream divided roves,

And winds encircling round her ebon groves;

Of sable hue the costly timbers stand,

Dark as the swarthy natives of the land:

Yet, though tall woods in wide abundance spread,

Their leafy tops afford no friendly shade;

So vertically shine the solar rays,

And from the Lion dart the downward blaze.

From thence, through deserts dry, thou journey’st on,

Nor shrink’st, diminished by the torrid zone,

Strong in thyself, collected, full, and one.

Anon, thy streams are parcelled o’er the plain,

Anon the scattered currents meet again;

Jointly they flow, where Philæ’s gates divide

Our fertile Egypt from Arabia’s side;

Thence, with a peaceful, soft descent, they creep,

And seek, insensibly, the distant deep;

Till through seven mouths the famous flood is lost,

On the last limits of our Pharian coast;

Where Gaza’s isthmus rises, to restrain

The Erythræan from the midland main.

Who that beholds thee, Nile! thus gently flow,

With scarce a wrinkle on thy glassy brow,

Can guess thy rage, when rocks resist thy force,

And hurl thee headlong in thy downward course;

When spouting cararacts thy torrents pour,

And nations tremble at the deafening roar;

When thy proud waves with indignation rise,

And dash their foamy fury to the skies?

These wonders reedy Abatos can tell,

And the tall cliffs that first declare thy swell;

The cliffs with ignorance of old believed

Thy parent veins, and for thy spring received.

From thence huge mountains Nature’s hand provides,

To bank thy too luxurious river’s sides;

As in a vale thy current she restrains,

Nor suffers thee to spread the Libyan plains:

At Memphis, first, free liberty she yields,

And lets thee loose to float the thirsty fields.