Saturday, November 29, 2008

Shelley's OZYMANDIAS: A Romantic Poem?

Some of you may find my question a little odd: Shelley is a 'romantic' poet, therefore Ozymandias is romantic poem. As you probably know, things aren't that simple. So let's look at the poem:


I met a traveler 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.

This would seem to be a simple, straightforward, unproblematical poem, and it would be if it weren't for one small, grammatical glitch--a slight ambiguity--which I shall get to shortly. What the poem seems to be saying--and is, in part--is pretty much what the Old Testament says, in Ecclesiastes: all is vanity. The paths of glory lead but to the grave. Anyone can come up with other such deep and traditional apothegms.

Now for the grammatical glitch. We tend to take the grammar of the stuff we read for granted, unless it happens to go seriously wrong. This reading habit, and others which are easily acquired from a steady diet of journalistic prose, can be dysfunctional (there must be a better word) when one is reading poetry. Poetry may pack several meanings into a few words, thereby putting pressure on grammar and syntax, whereas journalistic prose is diffuse, spreading its meanings and ideas across many.

The glitch in this poem occurs with the verb "survive": is it transitive or intransitive--meaning, does it or does it not, 'take' an object? Or both? Well, it can't be intransitive because then the clause, "The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed" would be left dangling, uselessly. So "survive" has to have, as its object, the words "hand" and "heart": the hand of the sculptor, the heart of Ozymandias. The subject of the verb is "passions", naturally, i.e. the passions written all over this (partially) shattered visage with its "frown/And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command" which is all that's left of both Ozymandius and the nameless artist who carved it. Who carved it knowing that this is how Ozymandias wanted to look; it is how he thought a king should look. But Ozymandias didn't understand that this is the look of a man who cares for nothing but power.

The fact that anyone who sees that visage now can tell at a glance what Ozymandias was really all about tells us something important: that ancient sculptor read the face of Ozymandias just as we do, ironically, and he "stamped" it, i.e. carved it into this block of stone in a way that both pleased the king and deceived him: Ozymandias did not understand that he was being mocked by a man whom he thought of (if he thought at all) as a mere lackey, a worm. Now, thanks to that worm, we can look at this face and see him for what he was. That sneer of cold command, which perfectly fits his arrogant and empty boasting, is all that's left of him--like the smile of the Cheshire cat in Alice In Wonderland. Here, thinks Shelley, something worth knowing: all these bastards are the same; human nature doesn't change. Art lasts longer than power. To Shelley that annonymous artist is a kindred spirit.

It is, in one way, a curiously unromantic poem: the idea that human nature is everywhere and at all times the same is not romantic but neo-classic. Samuel Johnson (see his great poem, "The Vanity Of Human Wishes") would have approved. On the other hand, the idea that Art is timeless is new. I think. It was the romantics who began to spell the word 'art' with an upper-case 'A' and turned artists into heroes.

Should you not be satisfied with my reading of Shelley's poem, consider the following bit (which I found recently on another blog):

The theme of this poem is the passing of human glory. The once great king, Ozymandias, modeled on an Egyptian Pharaoh, ruled domineeringly over a great empire. In his own lifetime he had a huge statue of himself erected to impress his subjects, who must have been then numerous in this part of the world, but it is now desert. The colossal statue has likewise been wasted by the passing of time, so that of the once bustling imperial scene nothing now remains but wreckage and sand–“Sic transit gloria mundi,” said the Latins–thus passes the glory of the world.... The imagery of the poem lies in the description of the desert scene. It is a vivid description, with one dramatic word after another that punches over the message: “antique…vast…shattered…frown…sneer…stamped…despair…colossal…wreck…boundless.” Such vocabulary builds up a powerful effect, climaxing in the eleventh line, dying away again in the return of the last three lines to the desert, where the poem began. In the beginning there is nature. Then man comes to “strut and fret his hour upon the stage,” but finally all that is left is – nature. Deserted nature at that. “Despair!” is indeed the key-word of the poem. Nothing in the 14 lines gives the hope that human affairs have any final meaning. The most that can be said, Shelley seems to tell us, is that human affairs can be impressive and mighty for as long as they last, but–as he clearly suggests through the inscription on the pedestal of the broken statue–they never do last.
Ozymandias was indeed once great. His ambition to command as King of Kings went well beyond reasonable bounds. Like Solomon in the Old Testament, he was driven to recognize that “all is vanity” (Eccles. 1:2), but even if he failed to achieve anything that lasted, nevertheless he affirmed by the striving of his “works” that there is more to life than just living out one’s life-span in material comfort with social security.
So against the complacent materialism of a modern world shutting out God and closing down human beings, the Romantics score heavily. Where they fail is that their affirmation of the Something More is not usually hooked to any reality tougher than their own instincts and feelings that there must be Something More. But supposing there is not? Feelings alone are not enough. And that is why Ozymandias finishes in despair. He sensed that human greatness had a meaning, and he lived greatly as though it did, but he never found that meaning. And so for Shelley there seems to remain nothing but the desert, forerunner of T. S. Eliot’s famous “Wasteland.”
Therefore the Romantics correctly see that sick modern man is making life into a poor affair. They protest, eloquently. They are right to protest. But unless they diagnose the sickness as being the cutting out of God, and unless they re-anchor their instincts and feelings in the greatness of the true God who invites all men to Heaven, then a few generations later the Romantics’ beautiful “feelings” and noble “instincts” and great “longings” will be cast out as so much kidology. Man lives by Truth. He demands truth to live by. And that is why the 20th century, however much it may have “longed” to be able to continue “feeling good” about life, saw a strong anti-Romantic reaction.


  1. Can we say art is timeless if the statue didn't survive? But since the sneer survived the unified statue, and the sneer was the message the sculptor chose to leave to posterity, maybe art is indeed timeless.

    Has art survived if a subsequent generation reads it in a different way? There have been people in recent times who viewed Plato's REPUBLIC as a defense of thought control (the noble lie). Such a reading is anachronistic, but does that make it wrong? Perhaps we should say that the only way a work of art survives is by maturing and being open to new interpretations.

    What should I have said to the student in China who asked me "If Plato were alive today, would he consider Chairman Mao an example of the Philosopher King?"

  2. Thank you. I've been struggling with the grammar of the poem, and you are the only person who actually makes sense of it. The hand and the heart are survived by the passions. I was trying to figure out whether the sculptor read the hand and heart, or whether the hand and heart were stamped, but I get it now. But mildly distressing is the fact that no one but you understood my question--they kept trying to explain the meaning of the poem, not the syntax--and no one seemed bothered by that dangling clause.