I met a traveller 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 gold 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 besides remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.
Percy Bysshe Shelley
There is that tendency to reflect on time and change, ends and beginnings, the past and the horizons stretching endlessly ahead that one looks into whenever one confronts that Janus-faced month of January. Some of these topics arise from a very famous poem that says much about the past but paints a rather chastening picture when looking into futurity. It mocks the idea of immortality, or, at least, is somewhat discouraging.
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) was one of the major English Romantic poets, a very fine technician, but in social politics, very controversial in his day because he was an atheist and something of a political troublemaker. He was actually expelled from Oxford for his unrepentant atheism. Despite those attractive political attributes, though, he did not treat his first wife very nicely. He was also closely associated with fellow poet Lord Byron, known for his way with women, if not plain debauchery. Either some osmosis took place there or there is some truth in the cliché about birds of a feather. Very interestingly, Shelley’s second wife was Mary Shelley, author of the very timeless, visionary and influential novel Frankenstein (1818). (Well, is it osmosis again, or the other cliché about show me your friends and I’ll tell you who you are?)
The poem Ozymandias was written in 1818 and has become one of his most popular poems and rated among the best of English Romantic sonnets. It is likely influenced by Rameses of ancient Egypt and there is speculation about whether it describes an actual ruin or is directly about Rameses the Great. But the famous and oft misquoted line, “Look on my works ye mighty and despair” certainly resembles lines written by that Pharoah: “King of Kings am I, Osymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works.”
The poem certainly describes the ruins of a powerful ruler, probably mighty (great?) but from his words, definitely vain and probably slightly megalomaniac. He built a massive statue of himself in stone in the desert with the inscription “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: / Look on my works ye mighty and despair.” He thought himself greater than all other men of power and/or achievement, claiming to surpass them all. He believed he outstripped them so emphatically that the comparison would drive them to despair. It presents a picture and then makes a comment about the grandeur of the past, its effect on the present and the power of men to achieve immortality through their “great(?)” works and impose themselves upon time.
But Shelley brings all such vain hopes crashing down to earth (or to sand). He calls the remains of Ozymandias a “colossal wreck” and immediately after the king’s boast about looking on his mighty works the poet says “nothing besides remains.” He also uses the word “decay” in reference to the fact that these lowly and anonymous remnants, half buried in dust, are the lowly remnants, disjecta membra of supposed power and greatness. The king has thus failed to conquer time and ironically, the low-lying, truncated ruin that we see is all that he has come to, defeated by time. Note also how the desert sands dwarf the remains of Ozymandias, rendering them insignificant and lost against the vastness and power of the sandy desert.
Shelley turns the king’s words against him. He is the one to despair. Also, all those who believe they are mighty and immortal must look on these fragments, this colossal wreck, and face the discouraging reality that they are not immortal and can come to the same end as Ozymandias. The poet then passes the same warning to all readers of the poem. You are not going to conquer time, and you are little in the face of the great eternal world.
And why is this a good poem? Apart from those elements of it mentioned above, its excellence may be seen when it is compared to another sonnet written by Shelley’s friend Horace Smith at the same time. They had a friendly competition over writing a sonnet on the same Egyptian theme. Smith’s poem is not bad; it is quite good, but fades ordinarily when put against Shelley. It describes the scene in the Egyptian desert and mainly tells the reader what is there, what it means and what the poet thinks about when he contemplates it.
Shelley does something far more clever and artistically effective. He does not give a straightforward statement as Smith does. But why does Shelley not give a first hand description; why does he have someone else tell the story? He wants to remove it a bit. The poet did not see the ruin, he was told about it by a traveller, who most likely has seen a lot. It is told to him as something far away, exotic, amazing, even romantic, but something that has an effect upon the audience. This effect is dramatic; it is ‘shown,’ not ‘told’ (as in Smith’s poem). The poet very simply, reproduces word for word what the traveller says, without comment. All the dramatic effect and any comment come from the audience’s impression of what the traveller relates. Shelley manages to leave the poem to speak for itself.
Caribbean poet Ian McDonald commented on the comparison between the two poems in an article some years ago in the Sunday Stabroek. He said Shelley’s poem is called Ozymandias. Smith’s poem was given the title, On A Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below. Comparing the two captions McDonald remarks that perhaps greatness also comes with knowing how to give a title to a poem.
Here is that other poem from the competition, on the same subject.
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 (1818)