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Monday, January 24, 2011

Number 48: Percy Bysshe Shelley "Ozymandias"


I met a traveler from an antique land 

Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand, 

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, 

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal these words appear: 

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare 

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

---Percy Bysshe Shelley

Hap Notes: Shelley (1792-1822) is one of those poets you read in school, see his picture and think of him as being one of those pallid, "sensitive" types who lived in velvet breeches. He may have been that, too, I suppose, but he was mostly a free-thinking firebrand. He was an atheist who was kicked out of Oxford for writing his radical views. It is said when he attended Oxford he may have gone to one class once, but read 16 hours a day on his own. His father interceded to get him back into Oxford and if Shelley would have recanted his views in some atheist political pamphlet he wrote, he would have been allowed to be reinstated. He would not. He was 19 years old at the time.

He was never famous as a poet during his lifetime and wasn't even published much. He was, however, somewhat infamous as a political trouble-maker. He was a believer in the rights of the lower class and women, vegetarianism, non-violent protest (both Thoreau and Mohandas Gandhi were influenced by Shelley's views), Irish independence and atheism. He was not afraid to write about this or argue about it.

Let's not make him into a sinewy hero, though. He was picked on and bullied at school when he was a boy. He had a high pitched voice and curly locks. But he had the heart of a lion to defend his idealistic beliefs (which were influenced by Thomas Paine, remember him?) I think Shelley got a pretty good whitewash job over the years as many have tried to depict him as only a gentle poet. His radical views have gotten a better airing over the last century but there are still too many that think of him as ethereal and quiet. Shelley was enthusiastically opinionated.

When he drowned in a boating accident in Italy (he was not quite 30), some snarky paper wrote "Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned, now he knows whether there is God or no." Nice, huh? Shelley was cremated on the beach (his remains were so eaten away Byron had to walk away from them) and his heart was snatched from the fire and given to Mary Shelley who kept it in a little silver box. The heart was buried many years later with Shelley's son.

Shelley, Keats and Byron were all friends but Byron was the popular hero, Keats was a sensitive and somewhat sickly man and Shelley was a hot-headed radical. I've often thought that Byron would have been the most fun to hang out with, Keats would have made a wonderful and brilliant friend and kindly Shelley would have set you aflame with ideas. I lean towards Shelley.

This poem is probably his most anthologized and famous work but did you know that it was part of a contest between Shelley and the writer Horace Smith? Poets from this era enjoyed competing with one another in a test of skill. We'll do another one of these contests soon that feature Keats, Shelley and Leigh Hunt. But" Ozymandias" was a duel with Smith. Here's Smith's poem:

In Egypt's sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:
"I am great OZYMANDIAS," saith the stone,
"The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
"The wonders of my hand." The City's gone,
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
We wonder, and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
--Horace Smith

Please tell me you can see how Shelley's poem is far superior and not just because Smith titled his poem with the encumbering "On A Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below." Do you see how Shelley lets you draw your own conclusions and Smith feels it's necessary to explain what you should be thinking and thereby narrows his poem into a sliver of an idea? Contrast the phrases "Egypt's sandy silence" with "lone and level sands." What the hell is sandy silence compared with other silences? Is it different from dirt-y silence? And doesn't just the sound of the phrase alone make you think of the winds over the sands which are not silent at all? It sounds good, it just means the opposite of what it sounds like. In Shelley's poem we meet a traveler, in Smith's we get a judgmental narrator. Shelly shows us the face and the sculptor, Smith shows us a giant leg. Both poems have some merit. But Shelley is both beautiful and profound while Smith is merely thoughtful.

Here's an extraordinary Shelley quote: "Government has no rights; it is a delegation from several individuals for the purpose of securing their own. It is therefore just, only so far as it exists by their consent, useful only so far as it operates to their well-being. ... The only use of government is to repress the vices of man. If man were to day sinless, to-morrow he would have a right to demand that government and all its evils should cease."

You can find more Shelley here:

1 comment:

  1. It is a very great poem, though I think we miss some of its original power because these days scholars have deciphered the hieroglyphs (which were still impenetrable in Shelley's time).

    It's also good to see the poem paired with Horace Smith's competition piece.

    I rather think Shelley was very careful to choose who he competed against - and even then was prone to rig the game in his favour.

    I admire much of Shelley's poetry, and love some of it - especially the Prometheus.

    But I know I wouldn't have liked him as a person.