"Those far fountains of the Nile": Felicia Hemans and Florence Nightingale
Emily A. Haddad, University of South Dakota
The Nile was far from a new subject for British poets when Felicia Hemans (1793-1835) wrote The Traveller at the Source of the Nile in 1826. Eight years earlier, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Leigh Hunt had felt familiar enough with the topic to hold an impromptu competition in which each poet was to compose a sonnet on the Nile in fifteen minutes. Not surprisingly, the resulting poems show their origins in received ideas and culturally predetermined generalities.
Although Hemans's poem shares the same sensibility, its grounding in a specific traveler's account of the Nile gives it both a psychological immediacy and a geopolitical relevance that the 1818 sonnets cannot approach. "The Traveller at the Source of the Nile" chronicles Scottish explorer James Bruce's arrival in 1770 at what he supposed (incorrectly, as Hemans probably knew) to be the source of the Nile. Hemans bases her poem on Bruce's extensive accounts of his travels, first published in 1790. Her version is relatively faithful in its particulars, but not in its conclusions. Whereas Bruce announces having overcome his dejection and sense of anti-climax with the help of "another Guide, more powerful than [his] own courage," and then having steeled himself to press on "for the honour of [his] country [and his] sovereign," Hemans leaves the explorer weeping under "the stars of Afric's heaven" and yearning for home. Hemans's poem turns on Bruce's oppositional relationship with the African environment, contrasting this relationship with the close and mutually affectionate one between Bruce and the Scottish landscape he remembers. The Scottish landscape remains the standard; Africa is unnatural, an "other" which Hemans rejects after acknowledging its appeal. Although she is clearly aware of the imperialist motivations for Bruce's interest in the Nile, she is ultimately unmoved by them as well.
Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) also read Bruce's account. She evidently thought it would prepare her for what she saw when she visited the Nile herself in 1849-50, but was disappointed. "I had read [Bruce's] descriptions," she writes in a letter, "and had fancied I understood them, but no description gives the idea" of the reality she confronted. This letter is one of many she sent home during a three-month trip down the Nile; these letters, first compiled by Nightingale's sister in 1854 and re-edited in 1987, constitute Nightingale's only substantial work unrelated to nursing.
Like Hemans, Nightingale initially depicts the Nile as an alienating presence: "The whole Nile is so unnatural, if one may use the expression, so unlike nature," she says in an early letter. As her trip continues, however, she finds herself closer to the natural environment surrounding her, and instead increasingly discomfitted by the human residents of the area. "I never before saw any of my fellow creatures degraded [ . . . ], but I longed to have intercourse with them, to stay with them, and make plans for them; but here, one gathered one's clothes about one, and felt as if one had trodden in a nest of reptiles. It sounds horrible to say so." Even paternalism seems to fail her when she is faced with the misery of the Nile villages' inhabitants. At the same time, she is more and more drawn to "solemn, melancholy, splendid Egypt," an essentially historical Egypt, from which is absent "any of one's fellow-creatures who contrast the past with the horrible Egyptian present." Thus, whereas Hemans emphasizes the unnaturalness of the African environment, Nightingale comes to focus on the unnaturalness of the people she encounters, and on the uncomfortable ambivalence of her responses to them.
Hemans writes "Traveller" on the verge of the Victorian era, during a time in which imperialism had not quite taken hold of the public imagination. Especially when juxtaposed with Bruce's original, her poem expresses strikingly strong doubts about the value of the imperial enterprise. Nightingale appears oblivious to the imperial and colonial contexts of her trip, which she took during a period of crisis over her life's direction; personal concerns override political ones in her letters. Underlying both women's attention to the Nile, however, is a compulsion to figure out what place a British person (in Nightingale's case, specifically a British woman) should assume in the world. The Nile--the physical and the human landscape of Africa--becomes the locus in which each writer attempts to resolve this problem, with all its personal and global implications. Hemans recommends keeping one's aspirations close to home; Nightingale's life's work as a nursing pioneer, especially in Crimea, suggests a much different answer.
Read more about Felicia Hemans and Florence Nightingale.