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'Ozymandias'
by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)
 
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 shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on those lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd 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 besides remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.'
 

No poet, surely, has ever deprecated the futility of human endeavour, human hubris, as elegantly as Percy Bysshe Shelley does here. The sonnet dates from December, 1817, and was penned in competition with another writer, Horace Smith (1779-1849), a friend and fellow member of the 'set' associated with Leigh Hunt (editor of the protesting journal, The Examiner).
 
Twenty five years of age at the time of the poem's completion, Shelley was the son of sir Timothy Shelley, M.P. Bart., and heir to the baronetcy. After Eton, he'd 'gone up' to University College, Oxford, from where he'd managed to get himself expelled for the co-authorship of a pamphlet on The Necessity of Atheism. Always the rebel, Shelley had run off with an innkeeper's daughter, Harriet Westbrook, whom he'd married, with whom he'd fathered two children, and from whom he'd decamped -to take up with another woman, Mary Godwin, (who possessed infinitely more impressive radical lineage). Harriet had drowned herself in the Serpentine the previous year (1816) - which had freed the well-meaning, but impractical, poet to marry again.
 
'Ozymandias' is a reverie upon the hauteur of Rameses II (known as 'The Great') who lived between 1304 and 1237 B.C. it is thought to have been inspired by the inscription recorded by Diordorius Sicules in his Library of History (Book 1, Chapter 47). This -inserted on the pedestal of Rameses' statue - can be translated as:
 
  King of Kings am I, Ozymandias. If anyone would know how great I am
  and where I lie, let them surpass one of my works.
 
At one time the poem was reputed to have been occasioned by the British Museum's acquisition of the 'Younger Memmon' statue of Rameses II - through the offices of the Italian adventurer, Giovanni Belzoni. Unfortunately for this theory, the statue had yet to arrive in London during the time of the two sonneteer's competition.
 
'Qzymandias'' rhyme-scheme fails to conform to a classical format, imaginatively interlocking Octave and Sestet via the gradual infiltration of new end-rhymes (ABABACDCEDEFEF). It was first published in The Examiner's January 11th, 1818 edition. Smith's sonnet, which originally shared the same title, was printed one month later.
 
  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 through the wilderness
  Where London stood, holding the wolf in chase,
  He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess
  What wonderful but unrecorded race
  Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
 
Smith had made his name in 1812 with Rejected Addresses (a volume of poetic parodies co-written with his brother). A prosperous stockbroker, he would produce a string of historical novels, and help Shelley to get his finances in order. The latter was to say of him "Is it not odd that the only truly generous person I ever knew who had enough to be generous with, was a stockbroker? He writes poetry and pastoral dramas and yet knows how to make money, and does make it, and is still generous". Smith, in turn, would fondly remember his friend berating a pack of children (for stoning a squirrel) until they "threw down their missiles and slunk away".
 
Shelley would die, aged 29, when his new, self-commissioned (and ‘unseaworthy’) boat capsized in the Bay of Spezia. It is wholly in character that he had never leant to swim.
 

Further Reading:
Hay, D. (2010) Young Romantics, Bloomsbury.
Quigley, I. (1956) Shelley, Selected Poetry, Penguin.
Rodenbeck, J. (2004) 'Travellers from an Antique Land: Shelley's Inspiration for "Ozymandias", Journal Of Comparative Poetics, 24, Pp121-148.
Tomalin, C. (1992) Shelley and His World, Penguin

Kevin Saving © 2012