Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Wizard of "Ozymandias"

Last week, I had my A. P. kids read Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ozymandias." You know it, right? The poem about the prideful king who thought he was all that and a goblet of mead, but hundreds of years later all that's left of his legacy is a broken statue? Not ringing any bells? Well, here it is, anyway:

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 these 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 beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

You have to love the poem's core paradox. Ozymanidas, the self-proclaimed "King of Kings," commissions a statue of himself-- not only as a testament to his great and sustaining power but also to guarantee his immortality. Of course, hundreds of years later, all that's left of this statute-- and, by extension, of Ozymandias himself-- are shattered fragments: the head, the legs, and the pedestal. Literally and figuratively, the King of Kings has been swallowed up by the sands of time.

Basically: not so much with the immortality thing for King Ozzy.

Ah, but here's the paradoxical rub: by writing this poem, Shelley is immortalizing him, but as symbol of mortality. The statue didn't remain, but the poem does.

Now, I'm not saying I came up with that; it's a pretty obvious paradox, after all. But I have a few other cool, semi-unobvious observations, too, about the poem. And so I present...

Dursin's Five Cool, Semi-Unobvious Observations about "Ozymandias," for Teachers, Students, and Folks Who Want to Look Smart at Cocktail Parties.

(1) You notice how much distance Shelley is trying to put between the reader and Ozymandias? Instead of just talking directly about this fallen king, he starts the poem with a narrator, who is relating a story he heard from a traveler, who tells the story about a sculptor who made a statue of a king.

When I brought Shelley's funky set-up up to my students, one young man said that, by putting this much distance between the reader and the subject of the poem, Shelley is reflecting the content of the poem in its form; Shelley basically reinforces how lost and forgotten Ozymandias by burying him underneath all these layers (the reader, the narrator, the traveler, the sculptor, the king). Good stuff.

But another student disagreed, suggesting that organizing the poem in this way showed how this king was not completely forgotten, because at least one person, the traveler, knows the story. So, in a way, the structure contradicts the fundamental message. Also good stuff.

They're both right, of course. That's one of the great ancillary benefits about teaching English-- learning to coexist with irreconcilable contraries.

(2) Just today, another student came up to me after class with an "Ozymandias" story. (We all have them.) Apparently, she was visiting Hamilton College, and she sat in on a class where the students were reading Robert Frost's poem "Directive." (Too long for me to re-print here; kindly follow the link.) And one of the students remarked something like, "You know, this poem reminds me of 'Ozymandias.'"

Color me definitely intrigued-- there's probably a grad school thesis somewhere in that connection-- but also tragically inequipped to comment on it. I've read "Directive" before and always found it impenetrable. I can see a few surface connections between the two (e.g. Frost's description of "a house that is no more a house/ Upon a farm that is no more a farm/ And in a town that is no more a town"), but I don't know enough about "Directive" to go deeper. Any help out there?

(3) Maybe it's just me (and I know it's not, because after I thought of this, I found this same comparison elsewhere on the Web), but Coldplay's "Viva la Vida" seems to explore exactly-- I mean, exactly-- the same tensions that Shelley does in "Ozymandias."

Think about it: both the song and the poem describe the fall of a prideful king. ("I used to rule the world," the song's narrator says in the first verse, but now "I sleep alone/ Sweep the streets that I used to own.") Yes, the king of the song falls during his lifetime, and there's no evidence in Shelley's poem that his king is ever aware of his ironic fall from grace.

Still, both texts deal with the elusiveness of earthly power. (Compare Shelley's crumbled statue to the song's castles that were built on "pillars of salt, pillars of sand.")

To all English teachers out there, I say play "Viva la Vida" for your students when you teach "Ozymandias." You can show the students how cool you are. Oh, yeah, and the juxtaposition of the two will reinforce the twin themes of the transcient nature of power and the impossibility of material possessions to withstand the onslaught of the passage of time. That too.

(4) If you're not familiar with the movie The Emperor's Club (and you're probably not, because, for some reason, that's one of those Great Movies That No One Has Seen. Why that is, I have no idea. Everyone has seen Dead Poets Society, and The Emperor's Club is far superior. I might even have to devote a whole post to this grave oversight someday. Where was I? Oh, yeah...), one of the initial scenes of the movie contains an indirect echo of "Ozymandias."

Mr. Hundert (Kevin Kline) is a brilliant, slightly-stodgy, and (of course) inspirational high school teacher of Greek and Roman history at an all-boys private school. On the first day of the year, he traditionally has a student read a plaque that says the following:

"I am Shutruk-Nahunte, king of Anshand and Susa, sovereign of the land of Elam. By the command of Inshushinak, I destroyed Sippar and took the stele of Niran-Sin and brought it back to Elam, where I erected it as an offering to my god. Shuktruk Nahunte, 1158 B.C."

Mr. Hundert then asks the class who Shutruk Nahunte is, saying that they can even use their textbooks. "But you won't find it there," he says, for indeed, "his accomplsihments won't be found in any history book."

Shutruk Nahunte, according to Mr. Hundert, is utterly forgotten by history because he didn't make a lasting difference in the world. Says Mr. Hundert: "Great ambition and conquest, without contribution, is without significance."

Sound like anyone else we might know? (Hint: it rhymes with "Fozzymandias"...)

I was so proud of myself for coming up with this connection. But here's the icing on the connection-cake: I didn't come up with this connection! The writer of the story on which the movie was based did.

The film was inspired by Ethan Canin's short story, "The Palace Thief." The first chapter of the story introduces Mr. Hundert and his Shutruk Nahunte bit (spelled "Nahhunte" in the story). Then Mr. Hundert (the narrator) reveals something else he does as part of his first-day ritual:

"... I had one of them recite, from the wall where it hangs above my desk, Shelley's 'Ozymandias.' It is critical for any man of import to understand his own insignificance before the sands of time, and this is what my classroom has always showed my boys." (Italics mine.)

Part of my was exhilirated that my connection had textual precedence, part of me bummed out I didn't think of it first. (Foiled again!)

(5) This last one might be my favorite thing I learned about "Ozymandias" over the past week. Apparently, Shelley had a contest with his friend Horace Smith over who could write the better poem about this king. So they both wrote sonnets, and they both submitted them to the same magazine, The Examiner.

Now considering Shelley's poem is a widely-known staple of English literature, and pretty much no one has ever read or even heard of Horace Smith, I guess you can figure out who won the bet. Still, I think Horace got the fuzzy end of the legacy-lollipop. To be honest, I didn't find Horace's poem that bad. Check it out for yourself:

In Egypts 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!
Naught but the leg remaining to disclose
The sight of that 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 fragment huge, and stops to guess
What wonderful, but unrecorded, race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

How did it all fall apart for Horace Smith? Two factors, I think:

(a) Shelley beat him to it. Shelley's poem was published in The Examiner on January 11, 1818; Smith's was published on February 1, 1818. (Remember when Armageddon came out a few months before Deep Impact? Just like that!)

(b) Writer Guy Davenport summed up the difference between Percy and Horace by (allegedly) saying, "Genius may also be knowing how to title a poem." And indeed, Shelley's knack for titles have helped him in the long run.

What do I mean by that? Well, while Shelley called his poem "Ozymandias," ol' Horace called his "On a Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below."

Not bad, as far as titles go... but lacking a little panache, you know?


Brian said...


I read through your blog this morning after seeing the link in the Sunday Courant. Great stuff; I bookmarked it. I hope you're well. Go Sox!

Brian LaRochelle
SWHS '02

Dave said...

Entertaining and informative. Thanks, from a teacher stuck in a very deep trench across the pond, awaiting the school inspectors' visit tomorrow

E. W. Cook said...

Great blog, I found the song and film, which were both unknown to me, nice touches for my own lesson planning. One small note, both poems were first published with the title "Ozymandias" in the Examiner, it was only on reprint in Smith's works that the other title was affixed to his sonnet, at least according to the Norton Shelley.

Sylvia said...

Walter White's reading of Ozymandias as the teaser for the final season of "Breaking Bad" is also excellent. If the kids are familiar with the show, there are many things to compare/contrast with the poem. Of course, the show itself isn't school-appropriate, but if the kids have seen it already, it can add a cool pop-culture nod to the poem.

Unknown said...

These are really cool connections you made! I'd love to know more about how you taught it to your class. I am in college working to become a teacher, and I was assigned Shelley as my poet for writing lesson plans on poetry. I'd read this poem before, but upon rereading it I realized what a great universal message it has!