Saturday, April 04, 2009

Ozymandias - a National Poetry Month post

Yesterday's poem, "The Second Coming" by W.B. Yeats, is a hard act to follow – so many great lines, yet some of them are so great that one can't really top them. Trying to think where to go from here, I found myself coming back time and again to the image of the sphinx "somewhere in the sands of the desert, . . . a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun", and I thought of Ozymandias. I confess to having travelled a somewhat musical route to get there, because what came to my mind was not immediately the line of "Ozymandias" that usually turns up, but because on thinking of the face in the sand, I thought of a song by Sting. More on that in the discussion.

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

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 shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd 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.

Shelley wrote this poem in December of 1817 as part of a writing contest with his friend, Horace Smith. Having read an account of the discovery of a fractured statue of Ozymandias (another name for Rameses II), with an inscription that translates as "King of Kings am I, Ozymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works", both men wrote sonnets on the topic; both men addressed the idea of hubris. For those of you interested, you can read Smith's poem and compare the two. (It's interesting to see how two poets writing literally simultaneously on the same subject and with the same theme can end up with different results, and I think it also demonstrates that Shelley was the superior poet.)

The poem is, as I mentioned earlier, a sonnet, but it does not fit the Shakespearian or Petrarchan form. It is, instead a "nonce" form, in which Shelley muddies the waters between the opening octave and closing sestet. Written in iambic pentameter, the rhyme scheme is ABAB'ACDCEDE'FE'F. The little "prime" marks are to indicate where Shelley opted for slant rhyme rather than exact rhyme. The shifting and gradual replacement of rhymes within the poem is similar to the shifting of desert sands over time as they erased most of the "works" of which Ozymandias was so proud. This poem is actually atypical for Shelley both because of its unusual form and because of its subject matter, yet it may be the most widely anthologized of his works.

As in the other poems I've selected thus far, this one has a memorable line coupled with memorable imagery. For me, it's the line "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!", juxtaposed with the empty, level sands stretching to the horizon as far as the eye can see.

As I said at the start of this post, I got to "Ozymandias" through a Sting song. The song, "Mad About You", has always been inextricably linked for me with the Shelley poem because of this verse:

They say a city in the desert lies
The vanity of an ancient king
But the city lies in broken pieces
Where the wind howls and the vultures sing
These are the works of man
This is the sum of our ambition . . .

In his book, Lyrics, which I reviewed when it came out, Sting doesn't reference "Ozymandias" at all, but discloses that his source for the song was the second book of Samuel, chapter 11, and the story of King David's lust for Bathsheba. Still, although I'm willing to buy that the song is from David's point of view, his discussion of the city in the desert calls to mind Ozymandias for me. To watch Sting performing the song in concert, you can watch this video at YouTube.

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