I came upon Percy Bysshe Shelley and this poem like many have, a teenager with a school poetry anthology on my desk. It’s a good teaching poem, what with its readily accessible irony—and so, “Ozymandias” came to me, nestled with poems by Keats and Byron, in the handy "The Romantics" chapter.
Stepping outside the poetry, even briefly, into biography, I found them a glamourous bunch of young men to my teenaged heart. The original live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse crew. Political and sexual revolutionaries, aesthetes with groupies. Did I study them or seek to be them? Well the former was on offer, the latter harder to obtain for someone of my looks and stature.
In the 1960s Byron, Keats and Shelley were the rock stars in my textbooks. To the generation before the 20th Century Modernists, they seemed that too, even if “rock star” wasn’t yet a metaphor in the shops. So, Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites wanted to be Byron, Keats and Shelley too. In America, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Paul Laurence Dunbar show that you didn’t have to be male or white to feel that urge. Even unique figures like Rabindranath Tagore were touched by their model.
Well, despite the notoriety, the tangled amorous relationships, and the requirement of a tragic early death—yes, in spite of this—in the end the romantic, idealist stance doesn’t remove the poet from the mundane tasks of writing poetry any more than drugs and sex remove from a rock star the need to come up with, well, some music once in a while.
Such is the case here of “Ozymandias.” Did this poem strike Shelley’s poetic soul in a flash of hashish inspiration while adventuring in the Middle East? Well, no. If we were to continue the musical analogies, it instead came from a silent, slow-motion written-poetry equivalent of a “Battle of the Bands,” a “Rap Battle,” or songwriter’s “Song Pull,” a friendly contest undertaken with another poet, Shelley’s contemporary Horace Smith. They both were working off the same short passage from 1st Century BC Greek historian Diodorus, which more or less gives them the plot. Here’s Smith’s “Ozymandias.”
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 fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
After they finished their competing works, I wonder how Smith felt. If one goes to poetry for meaning, these two poems make near the same point. Imagery-wise, Shelley’s choice and portrayal of the broken statue on a barren desert has some better selections of detail. And Smith, trying to make his rhyme, has one particularly awkward line, the one ending “holding the Wolf in chace” (“chace” is an Old-French word that was once used in English to mean hunt). But where Shelley kills it here is his word-music. And if you look at Shelley’s manuscript of “Ozymandias” you can see some of how he worked on these things, so they wouldn’t be “lifeless things.”
Art is not a competition. Criteria are slippery things, and what works in one poem, fails in another. Even day to day, within our own singular selves, what we seek from, or need from, art differs—but Smith’s “Ozymandias” was rightfully eclipsed by Shelley’s.
In my music and performance of “Ozymandias” I went counter to the presentations I’ve heard. The poem’s lyricism and the later 19th Century acceptance of Shelley as a portrayer of ideal beauty has masked the Shelley that was a political radical and iconoclast. As a result, many read it lightly, bringing out its sonic beauty or its pathos. I don’t know how Shelley, the political radical, would want it read, but I’ve always felt that the traveler who’s telling this tale knows all too well, in non-historic terms, about living under a hand that mocked them with a sneer of cold command.
Therefore, I emulated the spirit of another English iconoclast, Kevin Coyne, for this one.