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Ozymandias: The Poem We Teach and the Poem Shelley Wrote

Ozymandias
By Percy Bysshe Shelley
(1818)

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.”

So what’s with that “frown,” that “wrinkled lip,” that “sneer of cold command”? Or, for that matter, what should we make of the remains of the head of that once colossal statue: that “shattered visage” that lies nearby, “on the sand”?

Shelley and his contemporaries knew perfectly well what Ramesses II really looked like, since an extraordinarily well-preserved head and torso of the now 3000 year old statue was on its way by boat to London’s British Museum, amid much fanfare, when “Ozymandias” was first published in The Examiner in 1818. (1)

Slide02

That oddly geometric Egyptian goatee, leading the eye upwards toward that serene and calm countenance, so well known to today’s visitors to the British Museum, was equally well known to Shelley’s contemporaries through the many illustrations that heralded the arrival of this statue on London’s shores. (2)

And assuming that some of Shelley’s contemporary readers shared Shelley’s own enthusiasm for Richard Pococke’s extraordinary 2 volume Description of the East (1745), with its 178 large plates, they would also have known that several large sculpted heads of Ramesses II, all apparently in as relatively pristine shape, had been located among the Egyptian sands, all with exactly that same calm and settled countenance. (3)

Slide03And what about those words? Although we think of them as inscribed in stone–“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings/Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”–in fact they had long since been erased by time or defaced by subsequent generations who did not take kindly to Ramesses II’s tyrannical rule. So who was the “traveler” who could report such ancient sightings?

Or to phrase these questions more provocatively, why is the poem we have been teaching to so many generations of students so different from the one Shelley wrote?

Slide04

A bit of background. As a young student of English and American literature, I was nurtured almost exclusively on a diet of “the new criticism.” My twelfth grade prep school teacher used Brooks’ and Warren’s Understanding Poetry (4)

Slide05

as his primary teaching text, and virtually all my college teachers were steeped in its pedagogy and practice.

I learned somewhat after my college years that many of the principles and practices of this school of thought could be traced to work of I. A. Richards’ Practical Criticism: A Study Of Literary Judgment. (5)

Slide06

To address what Richards regarded as the appalling lack of attention to “the words on the page” by his Cambridge undergraduates, one needed to focus specifically on “how a poem means.” In fact this very phrase became the title of an equally influential book,

Slide07

written three decades later, by John Ciardi, (6) one of Richards’ many American protégés.

What appealed to me about the practice as a young student, however, was not so much its origins as its gently subversive nature. No longer would you have to sit passively as this or that that English teacher or college professor held forth about the “meaning” of works of literature in general and poetry in particular.

By dint of paying close attention to the way the poem unfolded, word by word, you could go toe to toe with the best of them. This made our discussions of what we read both livelier and a good deal more egalitarian.

Slide08

So for me, the practice of close reading became not so much a matter of confining my attention to “the four corners of the text,” as David Coleman, architect of the Common Core Standards in English Language Arts, has suggested, (7)

Slide09

as a matter of starting with a careful and sustained attention to those words, and seeing where they might take me.

In the case of Shelley’s Ozymandias, they have taken me on a surprising journey.

Slide10

It starts, of course, with a sense of puzzlement about those lines describing the “shattered visage.”

Slide11.jpg

Why convey a description of this sculpted head that is so completely at odds with what today’s viewers know, and Shelley’s audience knew, about the actual look of this imposing statue, as it would soon be seen in the British Museum? (8)

To begin to answer that question, it’s useful to look at bit deeper into what this strange traveler is telling us, and what he’s wishing us to notice. To begin, a reader might observe that the whole poem after the first line and one fifth is composed entirely of the traveler’s urgent tale: “I met a traveler from an ancient land/Who said . . “. With his insistent message, and compelling command on the reader’s attention, I like to think of him as a 19th century version of Christopher Lloyd, from Back to the Future.

Slide12

White hair flying, he simply must tell us his story before he will let us go.

But there is another curiosity about this traveler’s tale: just when we’ve been given that compelling description of Ozymandias’s “frown/And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,” and might expect to hear more about the cruel conquests and monumental legacy of this mighty ruler, the traveler abruptly turns our attention to the sculptor–the artist whose acute ability to “read” Ozymandias’s passions was so powerful that those emotions “yet survive,” “stamped” on the fragment of the ruler’s head that the traveler sees before him.

Listen to how the poem’s skillful turn on the verb “tell” accomplishes this subtle shift from “king” to “king maker.”

Near them [the massive legs], 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.

Slide13

And there’s even a suggestion that this enormously talented sculptor was quite aware of the pretentiousness of the claims to greatness made by his master, since the traveler uses the word “mock” to describe the act of sculpting—“the hand that mocked them”–meaning both ‘imitate’ and ‘show ridicule for.’

Slide14

But putting aside, for the moment, the puzzle of why the traveler fixes our attention so specifically on the sculptor’s palpable talent in creating this memorable image, it’s instructive to notice how the focus on the sculptor’s talent elides into those justly famous lines:

And on the pedestal these words appear
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

That is, the artful transition from the “[t]he hand that mocked them” to the words that appear on the pedestal open up the possibility that it was the sculptor, rather than his master, who authored these proud and commanding lines.

Slide15.jpg

And having been reminded of the resonant cadences of those memorable words, now would be a good point in our interpretive journey to reveal something about this poem, and the identity of that traveler, that would have been as obvious to Shelley’s classically trained readers as it is hidden from most readers today.

It’s this: those proud Ozymandian lines actually refer to an account provided by Diodorus Siculus, a first century Greek historian, in a multi-volume work entitled Library of History.

Slide16

The only way a modern traveler could have “seen” those words in the 19th c. is by reading them in Greek, as Shelley did, in the first volume of Diodorus Siculus’s monumental ouvre.

And as we know today, Siculus was himself recalling a description written 300 years earlier by a Greek traveler to Egypt named Hecataeus, who had seen those words on Ramesses II’s pedestal, and presumably had a guide translate them from Egyptian hieroglyphics into Greek. (9)

Slide17

Rendered rather literally from the Greek of Siculus’s Library of History, they read “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.”

And in case the initial readers of this poem might have missed Shelley’s classical “quotation’’—one that had become virtually a commonplace during the romantic period (10)–they would have been strongly reminded of it by the publication, two weeks later, of a “competing” poem of the same name by Shelley’s friend Horace Smith.

Slide18

The opening lines of this “competing” poem read:

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.”

My point in noting this classical quotation is not to suggest that readers rush out and purchase the next available Teaching Company lecture series on Beginning Greek, or start dutifully reading early 19th century literary periodicals, but rather to show how skillfully Shelley has transformed these lines into something consequential and resonant.

In fact it is not too much of a reach to say that these two lines—“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:/Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair”– are the reason we read the poem today.

So to recap. We now have three intersecting puzzles.

Slide19

Why does the poem describe a “visage” that is so remarkably unlike the face and torso we can now see in the British Museum; why does the traveler turn our attention so abruptly away from Ozymandias to focus on the sculptor; and why does the poem conflate over 2000 years of history to make it appear as if the same traveler who saw “the decay/Of that colossal wreck” could also have seen, at the same time, the famously rendered words inscribed on its pedestal?

In answer, let me suggest a perspective that would have been more obvious were it not for the manner in which this poem has been enlisted, in our classrooms, to teach our students about “poetic irony.”

Let’s assume, for a moment, that Shelley was less interested in the somewhat obvious “look what Ozymandias meant then; look how we understand his words today” aspect of the poem’s ironic “message” than he was about describing and exploring the role of that astonishingly gifted sculptor.

So what can we say about that sculptor? That he was exceptionally talented–something of a Michelangelo–at rendering those he sculpted in a lifelike way.

Slide20

That he was perhaps equally skilled at fashioning words to convey the voice and personality of his subjects. And that just as his carving “mocked” the grandiose pretensions of his master, so he was perhaps equally aware that his words could be interpreted differently from the way his master would have wanted them understood.

The character of the sculptor that is beginning to emerge, that is, is of a supremely gifted artist who very likely held his subjects at some degree of ironic distance.

If Shelley was not principally interested in providing us with a subtle example of poetic irony, however, what other purpose might his poem be understood to serve?

Slide21

My own journey towards an answer can be found by once again looking closely at the words of the poem, this time focusing on its concluding lines.

Many readers will recall the phrase immediately following the poem’s most famous lines—“Nothing beside remains”—because this phrase offers such a stark and dramatically arresting contrast to the boastful words that precede them.

Fewer readers, however, will recall the poem’s concluding two and a half lines: “Round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

For me, it’s the word “boundless” that merits our greatest attention. On the one hand, it harkens back to the unfettered ambition that characterized Ozymandias’ rule. On the other hand, it beckons forward to the traveler’s description of the unbroken extent of the “lone and level sands” that now stretch around him as far as the eye can see.

Slide22

But although “boundless” might be considered a somewhat unusual word choice when describing the sands of an Egyptian desert, it’s a word we’ve heard before in a somewhat similar context, referring to a landscape that’s more familiar to western readers:

Slide23

               Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
Shakespeare, Sonnet 65, ll. 1-4

Might Shelley’s poem, that is, be viewed as a response, conscious or unconscious on the part of the poet, to the claim Shakespeare makes in his 65th sonnet, where we learn that despite the “wrackful siege of batt’ring days,” the narrator can still hold out hope that perhaps “this miracle have might/That in black ink my words may still shine bright”?

Slide24

If Ozymandias is interpreted thus, the puzzles we encountered earlier begin to melt away. The reason for the focus on the sculptor is that it’s the sculptor, rather than the tyrant, who serves as an appropriate surrogate for Shakespeare.

Equally skilled at rendering life-like “images” and finding appropriate words for the kings and tyrants he portrayed, Shakespeare could also be understood as bringing the objects of his art to vivid and immediate life by “stamping” his words on the “lifeless” pages of a book.

And looking back, isn’t “stamped on these lifeless things” an odd way to describe the work of a sculptor, but quite an appropriate way to describe the published work of a late 16th/early 17th century dramatist and poet?

Slide25

But perhaps more importantly for the 25 year old Shelley, it’s the double meaning of that famous line–“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”—that both evokes Shakespeare’s talent for providing an ironic distance on his own artistic creations, and serves to throw down the gauntlet, without irony, to future generations of poets who might presume to challenge his artistic supremacy—that gives this poem both its dark sense of foreboding and its giddy sense of responding to an almost impossible challenge. (11)

Viewed in this light, not only do the resonant cadences we hear from the pedestal take on a heightened significance, but so too does Shelley’s choice of a sonnet in which to frame his response.

Since Shakespeare’s sonnets, which Shelley adored, were where his claims to immortality were most direct (see sonnets #18, #19, #55, #65, #81 and #121), it would be to this claim, and this form of poetic composition, that Shelley, as Shakespeare’s poetic “son,” would feel obligated to respond.

And respond he did, quite magnificently. Not only is his poem a sonnet, but it is one in which the artistry and intricacy of the rhyme scheme is so masterfully unobtrusive, with each of the four segments of the poem (two quatrains and two triads) containing an end rhyme that’s repeated in the next segment, that readers hardly know they have read a sonnet until they go back and count up the lines.

The son has indeed taken on the father, beating him, in this instance, at his own chosen “game.”

But at some consequence, as viewers who have thought about a similar moment towards the end of Star Wars: The Force Awakens might have surmised.

Slide26

Just as the “father’s” remarkable talent for “sculpting” a likeness has been all but extinguished by the timeless Egyptian sands, so his equal talent for crafting resonant lines (in driving iambic pentameter, no less) is on the verge of being similarly effaced by those same relentless forces.Slide27.jpg

And the sad and sobering fact is that by the time Shelley wrote “Ozymandias,” those memorable words had already been entirely obliterated for over two millennia.

Slide28

By indicating that he understands the irresistible nature of time, as understood in the context of the poem’s three millennia, Shelley “answers” the claim in Sonnet 65 to the possible immortality of the poet’s words by saying, in essence, that neither stone monuments nor monuments of the human imagination will be able, in the end, to resist the “wrackful siege of batt’ring days.”

A high cost indeed for confronting the father, and besting him in his own backyard.

Slide29

[A earlier version of this essay, without illustrations, was published in the May 2016 issue of California English, devoted to the theme of “Close Reading: What It Is and What It Isn’t” and edited by the inestimable Carol Jago]

  1. Wikipedia, “Ozymandias,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ozymandias
  2. Rodenbeck, John. 2004. Travelers from an Antique Land: Shelley’s Inspiration for Ozymandias. Alif: Journal of Compartive Poetics. V 24. 121-150.
  3. Rodenbeck. Travelers from an Antique Land. 122.
  4. Brooks, Cleanth and Robert Penn Warren. 1938. Understanding Poetry. The edition I used (pictured in the illustration) was the 3rd edition, 1960, published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
  5. Richards, I. A. 1929. Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgement. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, and Trubner.
  6. Ciardi, John. 1959. How Does a Poem Mean? Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  7. Coleman, David and Susan Pimentel. Revised Publishers’ Criteria [4/12/2102] for the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy, Grades 3–12. The language, under Section C’s recommendation that “shorter, challenging texts,” be provided at each grade level to “elicit close reading and re-reading,” reads as follows: “The Common Core State Standards place a high priority on the close, sustained reading of complex text. Such reading focuses on what lies within the four corners of the text” [emphasis mine]. 4-5.
  8. In his “Who is Ozymandias?” essay in the collection Who is Ozymandias? and Other Puzzles in Poetry (Vintage 2011, pp. 201-2), John Fuller suggests quite plausibly that Shelley had read Vivant Denon’s 1802 Travels in Lower and Upper Egypt, and was recalling Vivant’s description of a “spitefully shattered” colossus at Thebes, whose face had fallen into the sand and who Vivant speculates might have originally represented either Memnon or Ozymandias. This would account for Shelley’s “shattered visage,” but not for his decision to substitute Renaissance sculptural realism for stylized Egyptian practices in his description of Ozymandias’s “wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command.”
  9. See “The Real Ozymandias: The enthusiasms, rivalries, fads and fashions that lie behind Shelley’s best-known poem” in the December 2013 issue of The Economist (no author is cited in the online edition of this article).
  10. Rodenbeck. Travelers from an Antique Land.124
  11. I owe this understanding of poetic influence to my former teacher Harold Bloom of Yale, whose The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1973) was published just as I was entering graduate school.

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13 replies

  1. What a clear and entertaining analysis! This is what makes poetry and its criticism a worthwhile endeavor. As a middle school teacher, one of my great challenges is convincing my students why they should care about–as they put it–“some dead white guy.”

    On rare occasions, there is this moment, after much gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair, when the different layers of a poem, of its words, (and in the case of Ozymandias, its multifaceted irony, including the relationship between the sculptor, Shakespeare, and Shelley himself) are discovered by the students. This moment of enlightenment (the lower case one) is why these “dead white guys” still matter. That they, unlike poor Ramses II, have left behind something that sand or time has yet to erase.

    • Thanks, John. One of my goals was to leave the reader with the impression that “this guy is really having one helluva a good time getting us as readers from “here” to “there.” ‘Cause I was.

      But perhaps more importantly, I think we might find that more of our students become engaged with writing about not only dead white guys but lots of others if we help them see their writing as a way of “telling the story” about their process of discovery as readers. Sort of an I-Search approach to “response to literature,” as I see it. I might be talking a bit more about this topic (my latest idee fixe) during our upcoming summer institute on Writing Without Teachers, if the occasion arises.

      Thanks so much for your warm and generous response.

  2. I appreciate your insightful and entertaining explanation and hope you will allow me to use it when I introduce the poem next month. In 2014, I joined my juniors in analyzing this poem on the heels of its use in Breaking Bad, but when I noticed how the focus zeroed in on the sculptor, my attention left Walter White and turned to Shelley. Learning that the sonnet was his response to a competition made it plausible that the poet was referring to himself as artist outranking whatever topic he rendered. Perhaps he was trying to make up for losing to Mary in the horror story contest? Thank you for sharing your wonderful essay. Teaching is the best way to learn.

    • Thanks so much Linda, and of course you may use my blog post on Ozymandias when you introduce the poem next month. And while my own daughter has helped me see that initially we “read” the sculptor as the poet (perhaps Shelley himself) “mocking” the pretensions of the king that he is sculpting, my essay argues that by the last three lines of this poem, and especially with the echo of Shakespeare’s sonnet 65 that we hear in the poet’s choice of “boundless” to describe those lone and level sands, the poem is inviting us to think of Big Bill himself as the sculptor, daring his would be successors to “look on his [completed works in print] you [wanna be] mighty, and despair.” Hence the force of the Han Solo/Kylo Ren face off with which I conclude the essay. Make sense?

      And where do you teach, by the bye?

  3. Jonathan,

    Having never read “Ozymandias” in school, or perhaps never remembering having read “Ozymandias” in school, I thought of how many times I’ve watched my students struggle to recall books they were assigned to read in school just the year before. And what that might say about teaching and meaning.

    Jonathan’s “Ozymandias” essay also brought me back to a classic text I did remember reading in high school: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. (Note: I use “read” very generously; “exposed to” was probably the better word). If you’re now expecting a clever connection between Joyce’s “Artist” and the “artist/sculpturer” in “Ozymandias,” well …. No such luck. That’s because the only reason I still recall “Portrait” is for the remarkable lack of understanding and meaning I could cull from it. I didn’t get it. Not one bit.

    My comprehension of “Portrait” was like the words effaced from Ozymandias’ pedestal, except that I never had words inscribed in my psyche in the first place.

    In facing a challenging text like your essay, I was reminded of how our students often struggle with the poems, stories, and analyses we expose to them. And I also found it helpful to share with our students that there are times when the term “struggling reader” includes their own English teacher.

    Here are three strategies you used that we could all benefit from in our own teaching:

    1. Visualization. Earlier this year I asked a student how she “visualized” a scientific term like “photosynthesis.” She said she visualized an index card with the definition on it. For complex texts and issues, literal pictures help us “see” what words alone cannot. I appreciated the pictures of Rameses II and of the people mentioned in the essay like Shelley, Horace Smith, Hecataeus, etc. who I could not visualize from words alone.

    2. Power of Story. Tom Newkirk can use your essay as another example of how telling a story helps bring nonfiction writing to life. I enjoyed how you told the “story” behind the statue/poem with characters and setting and motives.

    3. Connections. I don’t know Shelley very well, but I do know Shakespeare, so the connection between the two helped me better understand your thesis that “Ozymandias” can be interpreted as the author/artist as timeless king. I also enjoyed the connection to the “Breaking Bad” episode that Linda brought up in her comment. For those interested, Time magazine had an interesting article connecting the two: http://entertainment.time.com/2013/09/16/ozymandias-what-does-that-breaking-bad-episode-title-mean/

    A fourth strategy to help readers with understanding?

    4. Asking questions about what you don’t comprehend

    Knowledge isn’t just about “knowing” concepts; it’s also about knowing what you don’t understand and them having the resources to find those answers. In that spirit, here are three questions about your essay I felt l I didn’t comprehend as well as I would have liked:

    a) “Why is the poem we have been teaching to so many generations of high school students so different from the one Shelley wrote?”

    Your interpretation of “Ozymandias” (which I enjoyed) differs from interpretations of other professors. But how does your interpretation of the poem better represent the poem Shelley wrote? Should I read your essay and feel (as I did) that I have a better understanding of the poem because of it? Or should I feel that I “had to sit passively as this or this that English teacher or college professor held forth about the “meaning” of works of literature in general and poetry in particular.”

    What about experiences you had in school where a teacher helped you see a meaning to a poem through his or her analysis?

    b) “The son has indeed taken on the father, beating him, in this instance, at his own chosen “game.”

    Are you saying Shelley beat Shakespeare at his own game? But Shakespeare’s legacy is so much stronger.

    c) Last line. “A high cost indeed for confronting the father, then besting him in his own backyard.”
    Is Shelley to “blame” for challenging Shakespeare? What cost did Shelley pay?

    ***

    Looking forward to discussing these ideas with you more this summer.

    Thanks as always, for your way of gently challenging us to reflect on how we think and teach.

    Jay

    • Thanks as always Jay.

      One hope I have for this essay is that it might serve as an exemplar text for a different manner of asking students to write about what they have read.

      Rather then using the customary explanatory or argumentative modes, I think it would be far more interesting to read accounts of reading experiences that were framed, and Tom Newkirk suggests in Minds Made For Stories, as narratives.

      But more than that, I think it would be engaging, for students AND their teachers, to start with questions, like the one I had about the “look” of Shelley’s Ozymandias, and then narrate the journeys we take in pursuit of answers to these questions. But whatever the exact shape of the final essay, it does seem to me that telling a story is a good way for any writer to represent the manner in which a compelling literary text reveals itself in ever-deepening ways to the alert and dedicated reader.

      And now to your own questions regarding my essay.

      a) Shelley’s poem is most frequently taught as an example of poetic irony, where the meaning of Ozymandias’ words when he spoke them–“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair”–is contrasted to the desolation the “traveler” now sees around him. The moral of this reading of the poem, put simply, might be that all attempts to assert one’s “greatness” through the monuments one builds or the enemies one slays will eventually come to nothing.

      What I was exploring in my essay was how much of the poem this reading fails to take into account. Why the sudden shift in attention to the sculptor in line 6? Why suggest, by the syntax of the poem, that it was the sculptor rather than Ozymandias that created those memorable lines? Why claim the passions of the pharaoh “yet survive” because of the sculptor’s ability to “stamp them” on the otherwise lifeless stone? I’m not claiming that my own way of accounting for these puzzlements is the single “authoritative” one, but at present it does have the advantage of accounting for these puzzlements in ways that have not yet, to my knowledge, been addressed.

      b) In my suggested reading of the poem, Shelley is “taking on the father” in the specific sense of writing a sonnet which responds to several of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but most particularly Shakespeare’s sonnet 65. He is essentially showing his poetic father that he can “outperform” Shakespeare in the art of sonnet writing. Without going into too much detail here, what Shelley does with his sonnet is start with a Shakespearean sonnet structure (abab) and then shift to a structure that’s more reminiscent of a Petrarchan sonnet (an eight line stanza followed by a six line stanza). Shelley’s original contribution is to have one of the rhymes in each of the four ‘segments’ of his sonnet (abab acdc ede fef) repeated in the next segment, so that the poem has a seamless quality that leaves readers somewhat surprised, at the end, that they have actually just finished reading a sonnet. Not only is this sort of technical feat extremely difficult to achieve, but as far as I’ve been able to tell, no poet since has attempted to do so. That’s what I meant by “beating his father at his own chosen game.”

      c) Shelley challenges the claim Shakespeare makes in several of his sonnets–that his words will outlast the ravages of time. He does this by counter-claiming that no creations of man, whether material or imaginative, will last forever. And he uses the 3000 years from the reign of Ozymandias to the early 19th century–his own day–to help make his point. Certainly both Shakespeare and Shelley are remembered today, but the distance between our own generation and Shakespeare’s is a “mere” 400 years. What if one multiplied that somewhat short period of historical time by seven and a half? Can you be certain, given that much longer stretch of human history, that Shakespeare’s “black ink” will still “shine bright”?

      The “cost” of this counter-claim, of course, is that Shelley’s own words are even less likely to survive the long-term onslaughts of time than Shakespeare’s. So in a sense it is Shelley who is looking at the “works” of his “mighty” predecessor, and despairing of both his own and Shakespeare’s permanence, much as we all would like to believe that the words we love most, and perhaps even live by, will never die.

  4. Jonathan,

    Thanks for patiently explaining the thinking behind the questions you asked. As one unfamiliar with the poem, I appreciated the discussion of what the “typical” theme of Ozymandias might look like to contrast with the insights your reading led you to pursue.

    Thanks also for showing how Shelley put his own spin on sonnet structure (hadn’t noticed the differing rhyme scheme).
    Your explanation of question three really helped my understanding of your points about Shelley taking on Shakespeare and paying a high cost.

    ***

    I’m curious … having thought further to clarify points for a reader like me, would you be likely to revise your essay to incorporate any of the comments you wrote in response to other readers’ questions? I know I have a better understanding now of the piece because of your explanations.

    I agree with your idea that “… it would be engaging, for students AND their teachers, to start with questions … and then narrate the journeys we take in pursuit of answers to these questions.”

    I might add that when we share our writing with others in the classroom using Google Drive, we also have more access an opportunity to answer the questions our readers might have about our thinking.

    Years ago Lucy Calkins signed my copy of The Art of Teaching Reading with the quote from Alan Purves: “It takes two to read a book.” I thought of that quote as I see both of our learnings about “Ozymandias” grow through the interactive interchange, one that Google Drive’s sharing function makes very accessible for our students.

  5. Hi Jay,

    Reading over your comments and my responses. I was reminded of a teacher of Milton I had at Yale. “For Milton,” he said, “the Bible was not simply the Bible as we know it, but the ‘Bible with commentaries’ that had grown up over centuries of scholarly study.” I think that many online postings today read something like that. What might be called “comments with commentaries.” Of course there are often a great many more “replies” to a given post, especially if it’s a provocative one, than any reader would reasonably have time to read. However, in direct answer to your question about my own essay, the answer is that I am not planning to rewrite my initial post on Shelley’s poem, but I do now understand this essay to be more than just the post itself. The essay has now become, thanks in large part to your thoughtful queries, a “post plus post-post commentaries.” Perhaps that’s a whole new genre of writing we ought to be exploring?

  6. Hi Jonathan! Love this revised version and I’m pleased that we’ve had such a productive dialogue about it! Some further thoughts:
    1. On some level, Sh and Sh are responding to the old dictum: ars longa, vita breva. I wonder how the idea of artistic immortality had been transformed by the time of Wordsworth and Coleridge and Lyrical Ballads. Did the Romantics have much hope for the immortality of verse? and
    2. To connect this to modern educational trends (or bogeymen versions of those trends): to what extent does Common Core, the emphasis on nonfiction in Language Arts curriculum, etc contribute to pessimism about that potential for poetic longevity? Who reads Shakespeare’s sonnets in secondary school these days, let alone Shelley? And aren’t your students who do assign these works akin to the apprentices who sharpen the sculptor’s tools, mix the painter’s oils, or prepare the bard’s quills? And, finally,
    3. Given that your blog allows for revision, tweaking, extension, multiple media (did you snap a Ramses II image on your recent London visit that you can swap in for the first generic image in your essay?), what might we say about fixity and fluidity in art and criticism of art? The sculptor carves his words in stone (now a cliche for fixity, ‘set in stone’, because there’s no chance for revision), the poet sees his words in print. But the 21st century critic (when not publishing the seemingly final version in California English) can go back to his blog and move some pixels around with ease!
    Thanks for alerting me to your newest version! Keep on keeping on!
    -Andy

  7. Jon,

    A very informative and entertaining essay! The disparity between what is created and what is taught is a constant source of irritation for me, and I appreciate your clearing away the theory and drilling down to the facts.

    Your brief description of the schools of literary criticism sent a small chill down my spine, as I remembered hearing those names (and books) in the conversations in which we were both immersed and, more to the point, my almost complete ignorance of whatever they were presenting.

    I warmed, however, as you built your case for the context that for the poet was well-known and that for most of us is as obscure as the inscription that survives in the poem but not on the stone. The close connections you cite between Shelley and earlier commentators are exciting, so similar to the ones I delight in when researching inspiration and provenance in works of visual art.

    Joining him to Shakespeare takes us over the top. Now our sense of our own illusions of immortality rests on artistic as well as physical and political layers. Speaking of political, I can’t help hearing an echo of the tyrant’s foolish claims in today’s discourse.

    Some questions:

    – can you explain the concordance between the names Rameses and Ozymandias? How did Hecateus’ name migrate to ours?
    – what about the two legs? Was the head now in the British Museum found near other remnants?
    – and more about the sculptor – ” the heart that fed”? Can you weave this line into your argument?

    On a personal note, having lived in the LIbyan Sahara, the boundless sands are still very powerful for me. The area east of there, in Egypt, is known as “the great sand sea,” and the comparison is entirely apt.

    • Dear Bob,

      Thanks so much for this generous response.

      I thought the disparity between the observable and discussable features of a well-known work of art, vs what is customarily taught about it, might appeal to you. And as a fellow traveller in the realms of visual and well as verbal texts, I was heartened to hear that you found the historical explorations relevant and quite akin to your own impressive research discoveries.

      And what a kick to hear the words of The Donald in “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” The connection is especially arresting now that we’ve learned, via Jane Mayer’s excellent New Yorker article on the ghostwriter who wrote The Art if the Deal, that The Donald actually believes he authored this book, along with creating his equivalent monuments. Do you suppose Shelley was imagining a similar degree of hubris regarding the words on Ozymandias’s pedestal, perhaps created by the sculptor but subsequently commandeered” by Ozy himself?

      On the question of the ruler’s name, my understanding is that “Ozymandias” represents a transliteration into Greek of a part of Ramesses II’s “throne name,” which the Wikipedia entry on this poem lists as “User-maat-re Setep-en-re.” As my sophomore students like to say, “Hey Prof, how did you get from ‘there’ to ‘here’?” And I’m afraid I haven’t a clue. The English Romantics all used Ozymandias (the French of Vivant Denon’s Travels uses “Ossimandu”), but I’m afraid I don’t know when current usage shifted to Ramesses II. Perhaps when Greek fell out of favor as a necessary accoutrement of the well educated English gentleman?

      The two legs were Shelley’s invention. There is a possibility that he’d read and was remembering a description in Vivant of a colossal stature to Memnon or Ozymandias, with its huge shattered head now face down in the sand, but I suspect this was Shelley’s own invention. Just how effective and important those two “vast and trunkless legs of stone” are to the opening image of the poem can be seen by comparing Shelley’s opening to that of his fried Horace Smith: “In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,/Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws/The only shadow that the Desert knows.” I understand that Smith was somewhat embarrassed to have his amateur effort more or less set beside Shelley’s, but I do wonder if at least some early 19th c. readers snickered at this rather howlingly obvious phallic symbol as much as today’s modern reader is likely to do.

      The syntax of “The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed” is by my reckoning the one imperfection in the poem. Always good to have at least one defect in an otherwise perfect artistic achievement, IMHO. I believe Shelley wanted this line to refer back to “lifeless things” in the line previous. The sculptor’s hand had been able to mock the features of Ozymandias’s face since the sculptor himself had understood the heart (i.e. Ozymandias’s) that “fed” these features. Syntactically awkward, I realize, but it does provide an enhanced basis for the Shakespeare connection.

      Thanks so much for your observations and questions, Bob, and for giving Shelley a degree of prescience re the sea-like desert sands (as a poet who only travelled to Egypt in his imagination) that I’m sure would have made him very pleased indeed!

  8. Hi Jonathan — I enjoyed the Ozymandias essay, particularly the way your analysis unfolds, layer by layer, to produce a rich and complex reading. This is much more than the new criticism we were taught, although a close reading of the text prompts your further research; I take this as one of your points – that the relationship between “new criticism,” strictly construed, and the something else that’s necessary for a rich reading of texts is a complicated one. As intelligent readers at Williams with a good dictionary but no access to Google would we have known that the inscription quoted in the poem, or some version of it, had existed but did not at the time the poem was written or that Shelley read and loved Shakespeare’s sonnets? We would have had to gather these and other threads externally to weave the excellent analysis you provide.

    I liked the contemporary references, e.g., bringing in Christopher Lloyd as the time traveler. Students must love this, although that is something that you would know much better than I.

    Not sure I would have gone so far to characterize Shelley’s venture as “confronting the father” and “besting him in his own backyard.” My view is that literary influence is less oedipal or at least more subtle than that, pace Bloom. But do I detect a hint of irony in that image? In any event, it reinforces the point that Shelley wasn’t writing in a vacuum, like a brain in a bottle. The importance of context, both historical and literary (and literary is a subset of historical), is something that new criticism, by itself, didn’t cue me into.

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