Reading, Passion, and Decay: an appreciation of Shelley’s “Ozymandias”
Shelley’s “Ozymandias” is a singularly appropriate choice for a curriculum devoted to “the only book in the world.” It is a poem that is itself about human achievements, and what does and does not remain behind once the illuminating glow of their initial creation has long since faded away.
Since its publication in the Examiner in January of 1818, however, Shelley’s poem has become so frequently anthologized, so familiar and beloved by readers, that the startling originality of its construction and the boldness of its assertions can easily be overlooked. It will be the purpose of this essay to argue for the seminal value of this remarkable poem by demonstrating some of the ways it achieves its cumulative power and resonance. This essay will go on to suggest, however, that in demonstrating the eventual demise of our most imposing architectural works, Shelley is simultaneously casting doubt on whether our greatest literary works are capable, as Shakespeare’s Sonnet #65 would have us hope, of holding time’s “swift foot back” with the “miracle” of their “black ink.”
First, the poem, from the Oxford University edition of The Complete Poetical Works of 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 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 those 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.”
What strikes the reader immediately is how suddenly and abruptly he or she is introduced to this strange “traveller,” and how powerfully this traveler’s tale takes over the poem. After the first two words of the second line, everything that follows is exactly and solely what the traveler tells the narrator. The effect of this economical entry into the poem is to make it seem as if the traveler is declaiming directly not only to the narrator, but also to the reader, and the urgency of the tale he tells is greatly heightened in consequence.
And why should a reader not feel this urgency, given the arresting nature of the image from the desert with which we are presented? Two gigantic “legs of stone,” supporting nothing, rise up from otherwise barren surroundings. A shattered stone head, once part of this imposing colossus, lies “half-sunk” on the sand nearby. And those words! On the pedestal supporting those “trunkless legs,” we read the defiant challenge of the once proud king: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” And we do look, of course through the eyes of the traveler, and what we see is that “nothing beside remains.”
To pay attention, however, solely to the traveler’s vivid image of “that colossal wreck,” and of the “decay” that now surrounds it, is to miss the crucial and quite unexpected force and importance of the poem’s second quatrain. In reading this poem for the first time, one might expect the “turn” in the second quatrain to focus on Ozymandias’s cruelty and heartlessness as a ruler. In fact the statue was originally accompanied by relief sculptures that did just this, depicting “mutilated captives being led away by the king after battle,” according to Diodorus Siculus, the first century Greek traveler whose account Shelley draws on for his poem (see Kenneth Neill Cameron’s Percy Bysshe Shelley: Selected Poetry and Prose, pg. 497). Rather than using the second quatrain to sustain and deepen our focus on the king, however, Shelley takes us in an unexpected new direction, asking us to consider the crucially important role of the sculptor. It is only because the sculptor was so skilled at “reading” the king’s “passions,” the poem indicates, that he was able to represent these passions so skillfully and forcefully in the statue’s “frown,” “wrinkled lip,” and “sneer of cold command.” Perhaps even more remarkably, the sculptor was able to depict these passions in such a lifelike way that they “survive” in the mind of the traveler, even though the king whose heart “fed” these passions, along with the monuments he hoped would preserve his name, have long since passed away. And based simply on what the poem relates, the sculptor’s skill is of such an high order that these passions are alive to the traveler even though they are represented solely by a colossal sculpted mouth, since the remaining portion of the king’s “visage” is presumably either “half sunk” or “shattered.”
This focus on the role of the sculptor in showing such preternatural skill in “mocking” the king’s passions will occupy the second half of this essay, since it is this focus that lifts the poem from a memento mori to earthly power to a more profound questioning of the lasting nature of any achievement, whether “written” in stone or words.
One of the most important effects of turning the reader’s attention from the king to the sculptor in the second quatrain is make the reader question the authorship of the words on the statue’s pedestal. Because we have just been told that the king’s passions “yet survive” for the traveler because the sculptor “read” them and depicted them so skillfully and forcefully, the reader is artfully and persuasively led to carry this sense of artistic acumen “forward” and to think of the words on the pedestal as also created by the sculptor. The likelihood that one would read the words as self-consciously created with an attention to their verbal resonance, moreover, would have been more apparent to Shelley’s contemporaries than to today’s readers. Shelley’s contemporaries would have recalled that the following words were recorded by Diodorus Siculus (or more likely translated for him by an Egyptian guide, since he would not have been able to read Egyptian hieroglyphics): “King of Kings am I, Osymandyas. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works” (see Timothy Webb’s Percy Bysshe Shelley: Selected Poems for an observation on how this inscription had become familiar enough to Shelley’s contemporaries to have become “an historical commonplace,” p.194).
For those contemporaries who followed the good-natured competition between Shelley and his friend Horace Smith, whose parallel sonnet on Ozymandias appeared three weeks later in the same periodical (see Treasury of English Sonnets. Ed. from the Original Sources with Notes and Illustrations, by David M. Main, 1881, as cited in the quite helpful Wikipedia article on this poem), the contrast would have been even more apparent. In Smith the inscription on the pedestal is rendered in the following lines:
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.”
It’s difficult to imagine a Londoner opening The Examiner on February 1, 1818 and reading these rather wooden lines without a smile at their unintentional humor. Conversely, however, the “stamp” that Shelley’s sculptor gave to these initially “lifeless” lines, and by association the contribution of Shelley the poet to the resonance of these lines, would become that much more apparent in the insistent cadences of:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
But the more important question to ask, of course, is why the poet should direct our attention so insistently to the “words,” and perhaps to the sculptor’s role in giving them “life,” as opposed to the architectural “works” that were intended to produce a sense of “despair” in the mighty king’s would-be rivals.
The beginning of an answer to this question, I believe, lies in another “turn” on the reader’s expectations offered earlier in the poem. The actual look on the faces of the statues of Ozymandias (Rameses II) portrayed in the popular Description of the East (1743) by Robert Pococke (see John Rodenbeck’s impressively researched but somewhat pedantic and curmudgeonly January 2004 article “Travelers from an antique land: Shelley's inspiration for ‘Ozymandias’" in http://www.thefreelibrary.com) was nothing at all like the realistic depiction so vividly described in the poem. The illustrations of the “king of kings” in Pococke’s book, portrayed in various stages of disintegration, all had the expression of serene benevolence so familiar to today’s student of nineteenth dynasty Egyptian sculpture. So why might Shelley have wished to present his readers, most of whom would have known that a colossal statue of Rameses was at that very moment on its way from Egypt to England, with such a different type of artistic achievement than the one they would soon observe in the British Museum?
One answer to this puzzle can be found in the way Shelley portrays the nature of the sculptor’s art. He “stamps” the passions of the king on the otherwise “lifeless” stone, and does so with such a careful “reading” of the king’s character, such passion on his own part, that the reality of king’s hubristic emotions “survive” the passage of over twelve hundred years. While the nature of such an artistic achievement is not at all consonant with Egyptian sculpture as it was practiced thirteen centuries before the Christian era, it is quite consonant with another sort of artistic achievement that would have been much closer to home for English readers, as well as being quite close to Shelley’s own deepest sympathies. This artistic achievement would have been the plays of William Shakespeare in general, and the histories and tragedies in particular. These are the works in which one could find the passions of monarchs “stamped” on the “lifeless things” of a book’s pages, and towards which one could turn for assurance that an individual of genius could create something of great power and significance, something that could perhaps “yet survive” the cruel ravages of time. It should perhaps come as no surprise, therefore, that Mary Shelley recounts in her journal that during the final months of 1817, when Shelley composed “Ozymandias,” he was also reading Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and Othello (see David Lee Clark’s “Shelley and Shakespeare,” PMLA, Vol. 54, No. 1, March 1939, pp. 261-287).
In contrast to this hopeful view of the lasting nature of the literary achievement of England’s most accomplished and revered writer, however, stands Shelley’s own deep skepticism as expressed through this poem. Just as the words on the pedestal that initially sound so absolute and resonant to the reader are now swept entirely away, only knowable through the recollections of a first century Greek writer, so “Ozymandias” as a whole puts in question the subtly assertive claim of Shakespeare’s Sonnet #65 that the “wreckful siege of batt’ring days” will destroy the narrator’s love for his young man “unless this miracle have might/That in black ink my love may still shine bright.” In fact the ending lines of Shelley’s poem seem to cry out for such a direct comparison. In the choice of vocabulary for the lines “Round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare” there appears to be a rather deliberate evocation of Sonnet #65’s “Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea . . . Nor gates of steel so strong but time decays.” Sadly for the reader of Shelley’s poem, however, and perhaps more generally those of us who hope there might be lasting power in our most significant works of literature, there is no “unless” at the end of Shelley’s poem. No miracle. No might. What we have is only the “lone and level sands” which stretch to the limits of our despairing imaginations.