Monday, August 29, 2011

Ozymandius by 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 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"

I just love this poem, and the vastness of it, the overwhelming image of the great and mighty thrown into dust.  I only hope Helen can forgive me because she posted it up not so long ago.

Interestingly enough this poem was written in 1817 in a friendly competition with fellow poet, Horace Smith.  (Isn't Wiki useful?  - although poem shape was endlessly more interesting from a writing point of view with an analysis of each poem (even if the conclusions were a little pedantic). And although I agree Shelley's Ozymandius is far and away the better poem, I rather like Horace Smith's last few lines -

The last lines of Horace Smith's

Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He (the hunter) meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

I think it works better at a remove from Ozymandius the statue - not only because Smith's vision compares poorly to Shelley's - but because the two images in Smith's poem are clashing.  The green image of London turned to forest sits badly against desolation and desert, so that instead of enhancing the feeling of waste, the reference diminishes it - and yet I still find the possibilities of a wild London rather inspiring and I wonder that Smith didn't forget the whole desert motif and truly move onto the wild green pastures that he hints at :)

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this foray into the past  
A.J. Ponder

A.J. Ponder's work is available through Rona Gallery, Amazon, and good Wellington bookstores


  1. Alicia, there is nothing to forgive--a poem like this becomes a ubiquity, like water or air.

  2. North of Auckland, sitting in a car in a poplar's shade, windows down, while my daughter rode a horse along a hillside, I spent a good two hours contemplating these 14 lines -- but particularly lines 6 through 8.

    It's in these lines that Shelley appears to get himself into a grammatical tangle. What does the word "them" refer to in line 8 (this being the poem's most important line)? It can't be the subset of the "shattered visage" -- the "frown," "wrinkled lip," or "sneer." And it's not "these lifeless things."

    Rather, it refers to "those passions" in line 6. Just remove the words, "stamped on these lifeless things," or even lock them away in a parenthesis, and the line seems whole again. Or almost.

    Because Shelley now takes an even bigger gamble in the second half of line 8, with "the heart that fed." He commits what's known in linguistics as a "zero anaphora" (you find this in a language like Japanese, for example) -- that is, the pronoun is missing entirely. The actual meaning is "the heart that fed [those passions]."

    In other words, passion (all poetry is about passion) is literally embedded in the very center, the very heart of the poem; and yet the phrasing itself, particularly in line 8, is fractured and broken off -- as with the statue itself (that missing "them," you might say, yet another broken penis from Time's remorseless castration of Greek hero-statues). Shelley, sitting alone on a fallen tree by his lake, understood that the poetry we find in ancient ruins lies as much in the visible as the missing, as much in the remains of antiquity as in its truncations.

    - Zireaux

  3. i cant beleive what im reading.. just found this poem tonight in a book entitled 'staring at the sun' irvin yalom...

  4. Zeroartuk - Is that "Staring at the sun" the overcoming fear of death analogy? I'll have to look it up. Cheers for dropping by.