Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Percy Byshh Shelley, “Ozymandias”

I may be offered a paying-gig working on a text to introduce high-school students to some canonical (public domain) poems in the "Common Core Curriculum." Since I hated poetry in high-school (largely because of the way it's taught), I find writing a "sample essay" to be a daunting task--especially as I try to simplify my grad-school theory-speak, but I need a it's worth a shot. Here's one of my first attempts to speak to high school students in writing.

Percy Byshh Shelley, “Ozymandias”--  Reading And Commentary

I. A Public Sonnet

Shelley’s poem, like Shakespeare’s is also a sonnet, but it’s closer in form to a Petrarchan sonnet than a Shakesperean sonnet; though it modifies the form. The first has 5 lines, and the final three have three lines. The rhyme scheme is ABABA/CDC/EDE FEF (though “appear and despair” are an off rhyme). In contrast to both Shakespeare and Donne’s “Valediction,” “Ozymandias,” is not addressed to a lover (or even a failed lover like Donne’s “Song”), but to no one in particular (or to everyone—the general reader). It is a more blatantly public poem.

II. The Question of Interpretation

When you read a poem as strange as “Ozymandias,” you will probably have questions. That’s why people read poetry criticism, or interpretations of poetry. It’s a good thing to hear what other people have to say---your teachers, a book, a website, or even this APP. But one of the first things you’ll notice is that almost everyone has a different interpretation of the poem---even if they all like it and think it’s worthy of talking, or writing, about. A poem like “Ozymandias” encourages these different interpretations and disagreements; that’s part of what makes it a great poem.  While it’s a good thing to listen to what others have to say, the best all of us can do is to help you form your own informed opinion about what the poem really means, or can mean to you. As you organize your thoughts, and write your own papers. It’s a good thing to be a little skeptical of what any “authority” says.

When I first read “Ozymandias,” I was told what many are told: Its central theme is “the inevitable decline of all leaders, and of the empires they build, however mighty in their own time.” This is what Wikipedia, and many critics and teachers, boldly state, and it’s a useful starting point for your own interpretation, but it’s important to question this authority. Other authorities disagree. You may either agree or disagree with that statement, but it’s good to look at all the evidence in the poem to test this statement out in order to “back up” (support) your own interpretation.

III. Historical Context: The Title of the Poem, and the Other Ozymandias Poem

The name Ozymandias” may first strike us as a strange: foreboding, and a little scary--certainly scarier than the name of the actual historical king it apparently refers to: the Egyptian Pharoah, Ramesses’ II (1303 BC—1213 BC). Shelley did not come up with the name, nor was he the only one to use it as a title for a poem. The word “Ozymandias,” is a Greek transliteration of the name of his throne. And Shelley’s poem includes a paraphrases of the inscription on the base of the statue, from Diodorus Sicilus’s Greek Bibliotheca historica, as "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."

Looking at these two historical facts, and their inclusion in Shelley’s poem, it’s understandable that many would conclude that the poem is primarily about Ramesses II, but Shelley took this theme as a starting point, and did something very different with it. In 1818, he undertook a gentlemanly contest with his friend, the poet Horace Smith; they both wrote “Oyzmandias” sonnets. Since both have been published (and can be found on the web), comparing and contrasting the two of them can help illuminate exactly what Shelley was up to in his poem.

Smith’s sonnet lost the competition; it’s not as famous as Shelley’s poem, and is certainly not nearly as interesting. It is, however, much simpler, and easier to understand on one or two readings (in contrast to Shelley’s which takes a few readings to digest, and gains in complexity the more you read it). So some may prefer it. In fact if you’re looking for a poem whose central theme is “the inevitable decline of all leaders, and of the empires they build, however mighty in their own time,” you’ll probably like Horace Smith’s sonnet better.

Here’s an excerpt of Smith’s poem, which spell out this “central theme:”

"I am great OZYMANDIAS," saith the stone,
 "The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
 "The wonders of my hand."— The City's gone,—

Smith concludes by wondering if London, and the mighty British Empire, will meet the same fate.[i]  Smith’s poem is formally much stiffer and more conventional, and much more didactic than Shelley’s. He makes his point, with maybe one interesting metaphor, but that’s about it. While there are certainly similarities between Smith’s “Ozymandias” and Shelley’s, there are many more differences—even in the way they quote (or misquote) what is written on the stone. Shelley’s poem makes no mention of “this mighty city”—nor of London, and no blatant didactic point about the inevitable decline of all civilizations; instead, he focuses much more on the stone, and even on the artist who sculpted it.

IV. Shelley’s Octet

Shelley’s “Ozymandias” starts as a story-poem, a narrative, but it’s not even spoken by the author. It's spoken by a traveller from “an antique land” (perhaps Lord Byron) who talks about what he sees on his travels. The use of the word “antique,” rather than “ancient” is interesting. People don’t normally speak of lands, or civilizations, as antique, they speak of art as antiques. This simple, and subtle, word choice foreshadows what happens next.

As this traveller recounts his trip, he only talks about the fragments of an artwork he finds. First, we see “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone” standing in the desert. It’s certainly a more striking image than Smith’s “gigantic leg,’ but in addition to the legs, this traveller finds something that is entirely absent in Smith’s poem: “Near them, on the sand/ half sunk, a shattered visage.” This composite image sounds like some 20th century art, like De Chirico, for instance. As he looks at it, he’s more like an art-critic than a storyteller, and he praises the sculptor’s art. The visage’s “frown,/And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,/ Tell that its sculptor well those passions read/ Which yet survive…”

It’s not even absolutely clear to this traveller/art-critic, or to Shelley himself, that these are pieces of the same work.  “The passions which yet survive” are apparently very mean, cruel, and heartless—if we judge by the facial expression (which certainly tells no “flowery tale” like Keats’ Grecian Urn). It’s not a mere “talking head;” there are legs, but the fragmented remains of the sculpture do not include a trunk, a heart, or hand. The traveller, however, is able to imagine “the hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.” In short, he feels the life the sculptor’s own “trunk” could breathe or ‘stamp’ onto these ‘lifeless things.’ The word ‘mocks’ is interesting; in Shakespeare’s day (200 years earlier), it primarily meant “to imitate,” but by Shelley’s day, it had also come to mean what it primarily means today, “to scorn” or “make fun of.” This double meaning allows Shelley a very suggestive ambiguity, which deepens the poem’s mystery, and leaves more room for our debate and interpretations.

We have now reached the end of the sonnet’s octet, its first “half,” and there’s still no direct mention of what allegedly is supposed to be its “central theme,” but we have a much more emotionally-charged image of the sculpture’s “visage.” Many more passions appear to survive through this art than in Smith’s poem.

V. Shelley’s Sestet
 In the first tercet of the sonnet’s sestet, the poem finally moves to the inscription on the sculpture:

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

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

Like Sicilius’s Greek translation, this inscription uses the word “works” (rather than Smith’s more specific line about the “mighty City”). In Shelley’s version, Ozymandias asks us to “Look on” his works. The challenge to “surpass” these works is implicit, however, as he (Ozymandias) asks the mighty to despair in what he assumes will be our failure. The egomania of this inscription is heightened much more in Shelley’s version than in Smith’s, and it provides a perfect “caption” (or graphic novel ‘word balloon’) to go with the image the octet presented of the visage’s “”sneer of cold command.”

But what are these works? And do they make us despair? The only “work” we can see in the poem is what yet survives of the artwork. In Shelley’s poem, we know nothing about whether the king was a good governor, or any of his other works, but we do know more about the sculpture, and even the sculptor.

Judging by the poem itself, it sounds as if the unnamed sculptor is referring to himself in this description: bragging about his art. Is it even possible that this could have been the sculptor’s self-portrait? After all, Ozymandias was the “throne name” of Ramesses II, which is not quite the same thing as Ramesses’ own name; and the bragging boast of the inscription suggests an artist so over-confident in his importance that he would chose himself as his subject.

Regardless of who is speaking it, the last tercet (still spoken by the traveller) implies that this is a ridiculous attitude. We don’t know what this sculpture, in all of its original glory, did, and we can read historical accounts of Ancient Egypt, but even if we can assume that it was a more complete portrayal of the complexity of the man---his warmth, tenderness, and well-rounded character (or even his muscular trunk)---the sculpture, like the city, is still a castle made of sand (As Jimi Hendrix poignantly put it). It’s easy to see the irony, and the hubris, here.

As Katy Waldman puts it in a recent article about the TV Show Breaking Bad (which quoted from Shelley’s poem), “given Shelley’s anti-imperial leanings, the scornful takeaway seems obvious: So much for all that arrogant posturing. Joke’s on you, Oz! Can I call you Oz? Who cares! You’re just some rubble in the desert.[1]

This decayed “colossal wreck” may indeed make us despair, but not with its greatness. If that’s the point of this poem, it’s an ironic commentary (or mocking) of both the sculptor and the emperor. Or it’s a warning, a cautionary tale, a lesson in humility. In a way, Shelley is telling himself to avoid his own temptations to be arrogant through his artistic powers---it’s an easy temptation, especially from the landed class as Shelley was, and had many flatterers. This may explain why Shelley himself puts the entire poem in quotes: he’s trying to be self-effacing. To acknowledge mortality in which “nothing beside remains;” to “admit absence” as Donne puts it, and the possible “colossal wreck” of his own art and life

For Katy Waldman, however, here’s “the real irony.” of the poem:
“ Ramses II has not, actually, been forgotten. Nor was his ghost receding in Shelley’s time: The ancient Egyptians fascinated Napoleon, who brought archeologist-historians with him when he invaded Egypt in 1798, and Lord Byron, whose journals are littered with speculation about long-dead civilizations. And while the 18th-century “relic” poem—of which “Ozymandias” is an exemplar—has a memento mori, all-is-ephemeral vibe, sonnets traditionally celebrate the perseverance of art across centuries, even across the threshold separating life from death. So if Ozymandias and his sculptor were not right, they weren’t entirely wrong, either.”

And yes Shelley’s poem still comes alive, whether on TV, or in this classroom!

[1] (In fact, Byron’s adventures in Greece, Albania, and Turkey the year before the sonnet was written led Fry to wonder whether this “Napoleon of verse” was the “traveler from an antique land.”)

[i] 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 fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
– Horace Smith.[13]

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