October 11, 2021

#08-142: Ozymandias

The statue fragment of Ramesses II in the British
Museum--the inspiration for Shelley's poem.

Note: At the height of the power of the British Empire, British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley offered a poetic reminder that power is not permanent, and that all empires fall.

Get Ready: Do you think it's the job of poets (or other creative writers) to "speak truth to power"? If not, whose job is it?

In 1821, the British Museum acquired a 2.7-meter-tall statue of the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses II. It had been excavated in 1815-16 by an Italian adventurer, Giovanni Belzoni, on commission from the British Consul General, Henry Salt.

In anticipation of its arrival in London, in 1817-18 the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley entered into a friendly competition with another poet, Horace Smith, to see who could write the best poem about the figure. (You may recall that Shelley's wife Mary wrote Frankenstein in a similar competition.)

Shelley's poem is much-anthologized even today; Smith's has been largely forgotten (though I love its ending, which imagines a far-future London as an "annihilated place").

Because it's short, I'd like to share Shelley's poem in its entirety, and add a few notes:

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."

First, let's note that "Ozymandias" is another name for Ramesses II, the subject of the statue in the British Museum. "Trunkless" means "without a body," and "visage" means "face."

The only difficult passage in the poem is in lines 6-8, starting with "Tell that its sculptor" and ending with "the heart that fed." They have been read like this: [The frown and lip and sneer] show us that the sculptor understood his subject's feelings well, and both men live on in the stone: the sculptor as "the hand that mocked" those passions, and the Pharaoh as "the heart that fed" on those passions.

The crux of the poem is, of course, the boast of Ozymandias that he is the mightiest of all--yet now his empire is gone, and his statue lies in ruins.


Read more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ozymandias

Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. annihilated
  2. anthologized
  3. anticipation
  4. antique
  5. boundless
  6. colossal
  7. despair
  8. pedestal
  9. sneer
  10. ye

  1. a look of contempt
  2. wiped out; destroyed
  3. without limits
  4. give up; accept defeat
  5. an old form of "you"
  6. gigantic; huge
  7. ancient; dating from long ago
  8. expectation; state of looking forward
  9. a base, as of a statue
  10. placed into a collection of writings

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for October 11, 2021

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. b; 2. j; 3. h; 4. g; 5. c; 6. f; 7. d; 8. i; 9. a; 10. e