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 Richard Monckton Milnes, Lord Houghton (1809–1885)

(From The Burden of Egypt)

O THOU beneficent and bounteous stream!

Thou patriarch river! on whose ample breast

We dwelt the time that full at once could seem

Of busiest travel and of softest rest:

No wonder that thy being was so blest

That gratitude of old to worship grew,

That as a living god thou wert addrest,

And to itself the immediate agent drew

To one creative power the feelings only due.

For in thy title and in Nature’s truth

Thou art and makest Egypt: were thy source

But once arrested in its bubbling youth,

Or turned extravagant to some new course,

By a fierce crisis of convulsive force,

Egypt would cease to be,—the intrusive sand

Would smother its rich fields without remorse,

And scarce a solitary palm could stand

To tell, that barren vale was once the wealthiest land.

Scarce with more certain order waves the Sun

His matin banners in the eastern sky,

Than at the reckoned period are begun

Thy operations of fertility:

Through the long sweep thy bosom swelling high

Expands between the sandy mountain chains,

The walls of Libya and of Araby,

Till in the active virtue it contains

The desert bases sink and rise prolific plains.

See through the naked length no blade of grass,

No animate sign, relieves the dismal strand,

Such it might seem our orb’s first substance was,

Ere touched by God with generative hand;

Yet at one step we reach the teeming land,

Lying fresh-green beneath the scorching sun,

As succulent as if at its command

It held all rains that fall, all brooks that run,

And this, O generous Nile! is thy vast benison.

Whence comest thou, so marvellously dowered

As never other stream on earth beside?

Where are thy founts of being, thus empowered

To form a nation by thy annual tide?

The charts are silent; history guesses wide;

Adventure from thy quest returns ashamed;

And each new age, in its especial pride,

Believes that it shall be as that one named,

In which to all mankind thy birthplace was proclaimed.

Though priests upon thy banks, mysterious water!

Races of men in lofty knowledge schooled,

Though warriors, winning fame through shock and slaughter,

Sesostris to Napoleon, here have ruled:

Yet has the secret of thy sources fooled

The monarch’s strength, the labors of the wise,

And, though the world’s desire has never cooled,

Our practised vision little more descries

Than old Herodotus beheld with simple eyes.

And now in Egypt’s late degraded day,

A venerating love attends thee still,

And the poor fellah, from thee torn away,

Feels a strange yearning his rude bosom fill;

Like the remembered show of lake and hill,

That wrings the Switzer’s soul, though fortune smile,

Thy mirage haunts him, uncontrolled by will,

And wealth or war in vain the heart beguile

That clings to its mud-hut and palms beside the Nile.