I hope you recall studying, or at least reading, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet, Ozymandias of Eygpt. (Pronounced Ah-zee-man-dius by most scholars, it was another name for Ramses, 1292 BC.) The sonnet was written in 1818, as part of a competition with another poet, Horace Smith, who was a very interesting person. More about him in a moment.
Ozymandias of Egypt is one of Shelley’s most well-known works. It speaks succinctly of how impressed we can be with stuff and things, accomplishments, influence, power, fame, looks and reputations, which eventually are lost and forgotten or at least diminished. There are differing views on how far we should take that cynicism–you can decide. Certainly it is true that many things that are sources of pride for people, groups, countries and civilisations, are taken away by time and circumstance.
It is also true that most of us are remembered strongly and positively by our families, friends and coworkers in proportion to how much we have positively touched their lives, rather than on a title, a big project or even many succesful, big projects. In Shelley’s poem he describes Ozymandias as having a “…heart that fed.” Ozymandias had a heart that consumed rather than contributed.
Here is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s winning entry.
Ozymandias of Egypt
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.
Isn’t that wonderfully evocative? Ironically, Shelley helped the fame and power of Ozymandias live on, because this will undoubtedly stand the test of time for many more centuries.
The other poet, Horace Smith, didn’t have the flair possessed by Shelley, but he was so pointed in his message that I think it makes it equally impressive–just not as quotable. (If you have time, read about Percy Shelley’s life. It seems to me he was an irresponsible, amoral young man who got caught up in his intellectualism. He inspired loyalty from his friends, but that isn’t necessarily an indicator of character. Horace Smith, by comparison, was humorous, decent and a successful person–but not ever as famous as Shelley.)
Here is Horace Smith’s sonnet for the competition. His reference to the hunter, “holding the wolf in chace”, (chace was the poetic spelling of chase), was a fatalistic view that one day a king or military leader would be roaming the world and waging war (chasing the wolf), and find the ruins of London. You can replace London with any nation’s capitol and it would apply.
Smith ought to have won an award for the title of his sonnet, alone.
On a Stupendous Leg of Granite,
Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt,
With the Inscription Inserted Below
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.” The city’s gone,
Nought but the leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
We wonder, and some hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the wolf in chace,
He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
I’ll let you think about that for a moment.
Some people do not enjoy poetry, because it is not as easily read and understood, and may seem artificial or overly dramatic to them. I don’t enjoy all poetry or all prose, but I do like the flow of the words. And, some phrases that sound beautiful in poetry or lyric, sound much less impressive when written as an essay. Consider adding some poetry to your reading material. Give it a chance and you may find it will provide you with inspiration and insight.
If you have a poem you would like to share, you can comment here, or use the Contact Me page. It doesn’t have to be classical, although I have my spam filter set to avoid limericks!