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An Ode to the Motherland: International Authors who Wrote About Egypt

March 1, 2023
Boat on the river Nile, Egypt | Credit: Vincent Fourneau

Many have written about Egypt: an epicenter of culture, art, and history. A land where the Nile refracts every sunrise and sunset, a land every corner of which is dotted with heritage, and whose people are ever warm.

Egypt has been home to an array of authors and poets who have sung and spoken of its beauty. The country has birthed icons whose poetry still lingers to this day, such as Abdelrahman El Abnoudi, Ahmed Fouad Negm, Salah Jahin, Ahmed Shawky, Aisha Taymur, Gamila El-Alaily, and many more.

These Egyptian poets have sung and spoken about important issues, such as the revolution as well as defying societal expectations and societal criticism.

But the resonance of Egypt has not only been appreciated and written about by local poets. International poets and authors who were only familiar to Egypt through research and visits also took to verse to express their fascination with the Nile’s gift.

In his poem ‘Along the Nile’ (1885), American author Henry Abbey sings about the jewel of Egypt—the Nile River—and its beauty. Abbey, a respected literary figure, is known for his simply-worded work and anecdote-filled poems. British poet Teresa Hooley, who wrote ‘Dawn: Upper Egypt’ (1921) and ‘Night Wind: Egypt’ (1921) is best known for painting images through her writing.

Like many authors, American writer and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson was inspired by the ancient history of Egypt. After visiting the country, he noted observations of the Pyramids and the Nile, and wrote about it in his immersive and vivid works.

From beyond Egypt, here is a collection of poetry on Egypt inked by English and American authors.

1. Along the Nile by Henry Abbey

To G. W. C.
We journey up the storied Nile;
The timeless water seems to smile;
The slow and swarthy boatman sings;
The dahabëah spreads her wings;
We catch the breeze and sail away,
Along the dawning of the day,
Along the East, wherein the morn
Of life and truth was gladly born.

We sail along the past, and see
Great Thebes with Karnak at her knee.
To Isis and Osiris rise
The prayers and smoke of sacrifice.
‘Mid rites of priests and pomp of kings
Again the seated Memnon sings.
We watch the palms along the shore,
And dream of what is here no more.

The gliding Cleopatran Nile,
With glossy windings, mile on mile,
Suggests the asp: in coils compact
It hisses-at the cataract.
Thence on again we sail, and strand
Upon the yellow Nubian sand,
Near Aboo Simbel’s rock-hewn fane,
Which smiles at times with calm disdain.

Who cut the stone joy none can tell;
He did his work, like Nature, well.
At one with Nature, godlike, these
Bland faces of great Rameses.
‘T is seemly that the noble mind
Somewhat of permanence may find,
Whereon with patience, may be wrought
A clear expression of its thought.

The artist labors while he may,
But finds at best too brief the day;
And, tho’ his works outlast the time
And nation that they make sublime,
He feels and sees that Nature knows
Nothing of time in what she does,
But has a leisure infinite
Wherein to do her work aright.

The Nile of virtue overflows
The fruitful lands through which it goes.
It little cares for smile or slight,
But in its deeds takes sole delight,
And in them puts its highest sense,
Unmindful of the recompense;
Contented calmly to pursue
Whatever work it finds to do.

Howadji, with sweet dreams full fraught,
We trace this Nile through human thought.
Remains of ancient grandeur stand
Along the shores on either hand.
Like pyramids, against the skies
Loom up the old philosophies,
And the Greek king, who wandered long,
Smiles from uncrumbling rock of song.

2. Dawn: Upper Egypt by Teresa Hooley

Gleam on gleam in the veilèd dawn
The feet of the Gods are but half withdrawn;
The Colour fringes their garments’ hem,
And the stones of the desert remember them.
Where the white mists enfold each hill
Lingers their brooding presence still;
Still, though the glory of Thebes be done,
The twin Colossi salute the sun.
Lure on lure at the break of morn
The earth lies fair as the earth was born,
And the old Gods walk in the mist and the dew
Of an ancient splendor for ever new.

3. The Sphinx Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Sphinx is drowsy,
The wings are furled;
Her ear is heavy,
She broods on the world.
“Who’ll tell me my secret,
The ages have kept?–
I awaited the seer,
While they slumbered and slept;–

The fate of the man-child;
The meaning of man;
Known fruit of the unknown;
Daedalian plan;
Out of sleeping a waking,
Out of waking a sleep;
Life death overtaking;
Deep underneath deep?

Erect as a sunbeam,
Upspringeth the palm;
The elephant browses,
Undaunted and calm;
In beautiful motion
The thrush plies his wings;
Kind leaves of his covert,
Your silence he sings.

The waves, unashamed,
In difference sweet,
Play glad with the breezes,
Old playfellows meet;
The journeying atoms,
Primordial wholes,
Firmly draw, firmly drive,
By their animated poles.

“Sea, earth, air, sound, silence,
Plant, quadruped, bird,
By one music enchanted,
One deity stirred,–
Each the other adorning,
Accompany still;
Night veileth the morning,
The vapor the hill.

The babe by its mother
Lies bathed in joy;
Glide its hours uncounted,–
The sun is its toy;
Shines the peace of all being,
Without cloud, in its eyes;
And the sum of the world
In soft miniature lies.

But man crouches and blushes,
Absconds and conceals;
He creepeth and peepeth
He palters and steals;
Infirm, melancholy,
Jealous glancing around,
An oaf, an accomplice,
He poisons the ground.

Outspoken the great mother,
Beholding his fear;–
At the sound of her accents
Cold shuddered the sphere:–
‘Who has drugged my boy’s cup?
Who has mixed my boy’s bread?
Who, with sadness and madness,
Has turned the man-child’s head?'”

I heard a poet answer,
Aloud and cheerfully,
Say on, sweet Sphinx! thy dirges
Are pleasant songs to me.
Deep love lieth under
These pictures of time;
They fad in the light of
Their meaning sublime.

The fiend that man harries
Is love of the Best;
Yawns the pit of the Dragon,
Lit by rays from the Blest.
The Lethe of nature
Can’t trace him again,
Whose soul sees the perfect,
Which his eyes seek in vain.

Profounder, profounder,
Man’s spirit must dive;
To his aye-rolling orbit
No goal will arrive;
The heavens that now draw him
With sweetness untold,
Once found,–for new heavens
He spurneth the old.

Pride ruined the angels,
Their shame them restores;
And the joy that is sweetest
Lurks in stings of remorse.
Have I a lover
Who is noble and free?–
I would he were nobler
Than to love me.

Eterne alternation
Now follows, now flied;
And under pain, pleasure,–
Under pleasure, pain lies.
Love works at the centre,
Heart-heaving alway;
Forth speed the strong pulses
To the borders of day.

Dull Sphinx, Jove keep thy five wits!
Thy sight is growing blear;
Rue, myrrh, and cummin for the Sphinx–
Her muddy eyes are clear!”-
The old Sphinx bit her thick lip,–
Said, “Who taught thee me to name?
I am thy spirit, yoke-fellow,
Of thine eye I am an eyebeam.

“Thou art the unanswered question;
Couldst see they proper eye,
Alway it asketh, asketh;
And each answer is a lie.
So take thy quest through nature,
It through thousand natures ply;
Ask on, thou clothed eternity;
Time is the false reply.

Uprose the merry Sphinx,
And crouched no more in stone;
She melted into purple cloud,
She silvered in the moon;
She spired into a yellow flame;
She flowered in blossoms red;
She flowed into a foaming wave;
She stood Monadnoc’s head.

Spoke the universal dame:
Who telleth one of my meanings,
I am the master of all.

4. Night Wind: Egypt by Teresa Hooley

We woke and watched the stars all jewel-bright.
Sudden I heard, as I lay lover-warm
In the encircling hollow of your arm,
The old sad wind of Egypt in the night-
The desert wind that sifts the shifting sand
O’er buried cities and tombs of vanished kings,
Sad with the knowledge of forgotten things
And old with memories none may understand.
Dead kings knew love and passion ere they slept,
Dead cities once were glad with color and light.
Dust now, and sand…. The wind passed through the night.
I turned to you and hid my face and wept.

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