Monday, February 14, 2011

Shelley--"Ozymandias" (1818)

A few years back--maybe even 10 by now--I went through a phase of trying to memorize various poems, memorizing poetry being one of those myriad skills--none of which I ever seem to have--that it is continually insisted one must be able to do if he has any hoping of possessing a first rate mind. As I still considered myself a literary person at that time, it especially galled me that the mere neglect of poetry memorization--which could not possibly be that hard, I thought--was giving my rivals and enemies such easy grounds on which to be dismissive of me. As I often do when starting from pretty much nothing, I determined not just to memorize a few poems but to render myself invulnerable to any suggestion from anybody that I somehow had not learned enough. This meant ultimately the bulk of Shakespeare and Milton, and I even entertained the thought of storing away a sizable amount of Spenser just to make sure there would be no level of literary discourse from which I could be excluded. I did start small however, and within a couple of months I could pretty fairly recite "Ode on a Grecian Urn", "Spring and Fall: to a Young Child", the first part of "Dover Beach", "Jerusalem", "La Ballade des Dames de Temps Jadis" in French (believe it or not, this was actually the easiest one to get), "We Real Cool", and, of course, "Ozymandias". Though other than 'Jerusalem', 'La Ballade' and 'We Real Cool', the recall was never completely perfect or smooth, and the upkeep in the memory even of seven short poems I was already finding difficult. I had not even gotten to my intermediate steps, in which I intended to achieve mastery over several dozen Elizabeth sonnets and odes as well as delve into numerous longer passages from the likes of Longfellow and Tennyson. As always happens, once I began to see how truly daunting the task was that I had set for myself, and to perceive the unlikelihood of attaining it in any form in the desired grand and timely manner, I quickly abandoned the hopeless pursuit, and except for a few snatches of verse which settle especially into the mind, allowed even the few poems I had secured so tenuously to fall away again.

Ozymandias, as doubtless everyone knows, is the Greek name for the legendary pharaoh Ramses II, who was the Louis XIV of the 1200s B.C., only probably more so. The beginning of the famous inscription on the ruins of the colossal statue of this king as reported by Diodorus Siculus, by then already 1,300 years old--"Basileus Basileown, Ozumandyus eimi (I am Ozymandias, king of kings)" is one of the very few Greek quotations I have ready to whip out in good company should I ever have occasion to do so, though I probably never will, as my wife has begged me to resist any temptation I might have to do this. The poem, a rumination on the fleetingness and insubstantiality of human existence even in its most powerful and significant manifestations, is one of Shelley's most celebrated, and of all his poems perhaps the one that has the most resonance with contemporary readers. I used to think there was also intermingled an air of romantic lament with regard to the puniness of modern man's capacity for self-generated and self-contained personal grandeur on the level of the supermen of the past, and there may well have been, this being a poem written by a 25 year-old, and that is how 25 year-olds think, though right now, today, I would be hard put to make the case that there were anything of real wisdom or truth in the idea.

The poem I guess is in the form of a sonnet though the rhyme scheme is a little unusual and other than between lines 8 and 9 there are no obvious breaks to divide the poem into distinct sections with little subsets of even numbered lines. Well, it is short, so maybe I will do a little line by line commentary pointing out some of the things I like:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said--

I believe this is what is known as 'framing' the story. Now you've only got 140 feet to work with in a sonnet, and you've just used 12 of them introducing this other narrator, which does two things that I like, i.e., bringing a sense of movement, conversation, etc, into the poem and also further tightening and concentrating, even just a little, the main object of the piece. "Antique" is just a slightly less commonplace word than all the others here, but is just enough so that it stands out and dictates the sense of the entire introduction:

"Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the Desart (sic) ...

Obviously here is the contrast between the image of stone, which usually represents permanence, though here pointedly trunkless, with the desert that clearly represents the temporal nature of all things. These are simple enough little ideas, but to paint the little pictures or the little songs so as to make them memorable and vivid and pleasing at some level to contemplate, that was the task, and that is not so easy to do.

Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

The half-sunkeness of the visage is a concession that its owner, while fading from memory, is not entirely forgotten yet.

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on those lifeless things,

Passions here probably refers to 'traits of character'. Still, it is notable that romantic Shelley emphasizes that the only aspects of this monument 'which yet survive' are the work of the anonymous artist.

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

The closing line of the poem's first part, as well as the only one in the poem whose meaning even at the basic level is somewhat of a challenge to tease out, both of which may indicate that the poet intended the thought presented here to be significant. The hand it is generally agreed refers to the sculptor, and the heart to the pharaoh. To be honest I do not like this line; it is likely that I just am not seeing clearly what it means, but it doesn't seem to me to fit well with the rest of the poem, and what I can make out of it seems redundant to the impression made by the previous four lines while adding nothing to it.

She's cute, huh? I like.

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

For the opening of the second part (the final six lines), as it were, of the poem, you now have the traveller introducing a third "speaker" as it were, the inscription from the remote past, which besides creating a very satisfying sense of symmetry in the body of the poem generally, is also one of those little devices that aids in memorization, for anybody who cares about that sort of thing.

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

The intention of course is ironic. This is an excellent line. Clean, powerful, and laden with double meaning practically on the surface.

Nothing beside remains.

Is this literally true (regarding Egypt and the monuments of Ramses II)? I actually don't think it is, but it probably is not important as far as the meaning of the poem goes, which is only loosely concerned with the reality of any one specific ruin. I also don't think Shelley actually ever went to Egypt, for what that is worth.

Round the decay
Of that Colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

The sands of time clearly being evoked again. Excellent image on which to end the poem, again simple, but visceral, because I have no doubt that many people, when contemplating the idea of death or eternity, are not far off in their mental imagery from a kind of endless desert. Many have commented on the coincidence that the 3 great monotheistic religions emerged out of the traditionally rather thinly populated desert regions of the Middle East, which landscape doubtless encourages a sense of the constant presence both of death and the eternal that has been hard for those of us accustomed to well-forested and water-rich countries to tap into.

Two Brief Observations I Omitted From My Tiger Mother Article.

1. I thought the tiger mother's restrictions on being in plays/acting was odd, because unlike apparently a lot of people, I do not see acting, if pursued at a somewhat serious level, as a waste of time or a bad pursuit at all, and would even encourage any of my children if they wanted to pursue it even if it caused them to miss out on medical school or establishing their accounting practice before age 30. First of all, simply from the cultural point of view, the theater almost certainly has a greater tradition in the English-speaking world than any of the other major performing arts. Really, it is an incredible and I would say underutilized source of riches that belongs to us, and I do include Americans in this because--1) our native theater, in the 20th century anyway, was actually pretty good, and 2) the language and performance standards of the classical English theater are not so inaccessible to us that we do not stand to profit much by a little exertion to try to study and attain them. Secondly, almost all of the people I know who have done some pretty serious acting have excellent personality/social skills relative to the general population. Of course there is a marked tendency among some of these people towards self-absorption, being intolerant of boredom even for a couple of seconds, etc, but as someone whose life has been largely crimped by the inability to speak to other people or present myself publicly in a lively and engaging way, these traits are very attractive when one sees them in others, and to me they would even compensate somewhat for having to live in comparative material penury in our barbaric society.

Thirdly, serious/professional serious theater people have often memorized huge amounts of Shakespeare, as well as translated Greek tragedies and other plays, which is supposed to be such a beneficial accomplishment for the mind.

2. To all the people who say American parents aren't competitive enough, are too soft to push their kids and teach them to win like the Indians and Chinese, hey, whenever my children are about to play a game, enter a spelling bee, whatever, I try to tell them that I don't just want to see a victory, I want to see the opponent children psychologically crippled for life, etc, but my wife makes me stop and I cannot seem to steamroll her and get my messages across on the importance of developing the habit and expectation of winning and destroying any rival who presents himself in your path. So while you can blame me for being too weak-willed to win the game, you can't blame me for not understanding the game.

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