In about 1810, the poet Lord Byron bought an Arabic grammar book with the apparent intention that he and a friend, accompanying him on a Grand Mediterranean Tour at the time, would visit Egypt. He had been advised that the East was “the only poetical policy” – the other compass directions having “all been exhausted”. They did not go in the end – but Egypt, nevertheless, proved a captivating destination for other poets, appealing to the wandering imagination of their Romantic spirit.
Just a few years later, on a Wednesday in February 1818, John Keats together with Byron’s friend Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the writer Leigh Hunt, took part in competitive sonnet writing on the topic of the River Nile. A few months earlier Shelley and another poet, Horace Smith, participated in a similar competition and the result – for Shelley at least – was the famous masterly verses of Ozymandias. Horace Smith’s poem On a Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below was less successful, but these collective efforts reflected the zeitgeist of the period, inspired by the translation of hieroglyphs, the discovery of Sety I’s tomb and the uncovering of breathtaking sites such as Abu Simbel and the Temple of Dendera. The “mighty thought threading a dream”, as Leigh Hunt wrote in his poetic offering, would weave