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Saturday, 25 March 2017


Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 - 1822)

Shelley’s famous poem is in the form of an Italian sonnet; a stanza of eight lines followed by one of six lines. It is written in iambic pentameter which is five pairs of beats, or iams, with an accent on the second beat. For example “If music be the food of love play on” or “Now is the winter of our discontent”. However I am not really interested in the technical aspects of this brilliant little poem. It packs a real punch and demonstrates that less is more! 
It is about the futility of tyranny. Ozymandias was a king of ancient Egypt, full of his own importance but in the end his huge statue crumbled into the empty sands (like Saddam Hussein?) The inscription "Look on my works ye mighty and despair" tells us much about him. We learn that the sculptor showed a sneer of "cold command" on the lips - so there's one person, at least who saw through him.

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”.

Shelley has used the exotic ancient past of Egypt to demonstrate that art can critique power and, perhaps, to make a statement about the politics of his own time. Ozymandias may have been a despotic tyrant but his Empire and his monument have been reduced to rubble – only the sneer remains and the inscription. The traveller who is relating the story looks about him after reading it but only sees the “Lone and level sands that stretch far away”. Nature is mightier than the king and all of his power and glory is reduced to dust. The vast desert is mocking human vanity and hubris. For me, this is an absolute masterpiece

Footnote: What does this poem have in common with Breaking Bad?
The final season of Breaking Bad follows Walter White as his meth-producing empire, metaphorically crumbles into the sand in the desert of New Mexico. Near the end of the consistently brilliant series one of the best episodes is called .........'Ozymandias'.

I have been listening to the brilliant but tragic Judee Sill singing The Kiss. You can hear it here. There is also a live version from the BBC which I find very emotional (but I'm a bit soppy).


Parnassus said...

Hello Bazza, I have never yet gotten such fast results from subscribing to a blog!

An odd coincidence--just the other day I was reading Ozymandias when I found it on my hard drive. I love this poem. The most prominent interpretation is the transience of life and power, but it can be looked at another way. The ancient Egyptians felt that one would be immortal as long as one's name was continually pronounced. In that sense, the inscription and sneer were all that were necessary to keep alive Ozymandias' name and personality, and thereby power, especially when compared to the countless individuals buried under all that "boundless and bare" sand.

bazza said...

Hi Jim. In researching this post I discovered that, far from being an imagined figure as I had supposed, Ozymandias was a Greek name for the Egyptian pharaoh Rameses II. I think a lot of what Shelley wrote was imagined rather than known!

David said...

Hi bazza,
Great poem! Strangely enough, when I was just a wee person in middle school, I was a member of our school choir, and we once sang at a concert together with other local schools and one of the things we sang was a version of this poem set to music. I distinctly remember the lines, "My name is Ozymandias king of kings". I also remember being quite taken with the exotic things the poem described. So, a bit of a journey down memory lane for me this time, bazza. Thank you.
Best Wishes,

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Bazza - well I'd never heard of Ozymandias ... but now I definitely am cognisant - and of its poetic intent ... nothing is forever ... once again a fascinating post - thanks and cheers Hilary

bazza said...

David: That's interesting, I had never heard it sung but I just went to find a few versions on You Tube.....I don't think it is in danger of being a hit song! I think that if a poem makes an impression while you are young, then it stays with you for life - I have quite a few always in my head! Thank you for visiting.

bazza said...

Hilary: I hope the discovery was good for you! I have just updated the post with a photo that beautifully illustrates the poem.