Ozymandias By: Percy Bysshe Shelley

I was invited to write about a favourite poem by students from Auckland Girls Grammar. It was to be part of a collection “Dear to Me” to be published in July 2007 by Random House, the royalties going to Amnesty International (New Zealand). I wrote two essays – to give the students a choice. They chose “Secular Litany” by M.K. Joseph. Here is the other one.

Keywords: Education; Literature and Culture;

I have many favourite poems. Because this is a collection sponsoredby students, I thought I’d choose one of the much loved poems I learned in my school days.

Not that the poetry loomed large then, for although an academically gifted class, our interests were scientific. When told to learn one poem for School Certificate, we went through the anthology and chose the shortest:still remembered though: ‘Three ducks on a pond …’

Nor, as others have told, did any teacher read poetry which stirred me. I dont even recall one reading a poem. The subject English was largely a task to be mastered rather than enjoyed. But somehow, some of it got through and years later I bought a copy of my upper-sixth anthology, Fifteen Poets. Its poets were a conservative choice – starting with Chaucer, its youngest was Matthew Arnold born in 1822. No modern poets (no one even mentioned that the writer of the essay on Byron was a poet in his own right: W. H. Auden). Certainly no New Zealand poets. (And no mention until university of my much loved John Donne.)

The poets I most enjoyed then were Keats and Tennyson, but I have chosen Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’. A sonnet, 14 lines, 140 syllables, hardly a single one unnecessary to tell the tale. It is so minimalist you have to fill in the details. (It turns out that it is about the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II – the Great. What he actually said was ‘I am Ozymandias, King of kings. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass any of my works.’)

One knew instinctively that it is a very good poem – anyway, it was in an approved anthology. But it was only years later that I came across the poem that Shelley’s friend Horace Smith wrote in response. What a pity we were not given both, and had a class discussion on why Smith’s poem was so pedestrian, so clumsy, so unsubtle, so crudely moralistic,while the other was – well – just brilliant. If you look at the rhyming schemes you’ll see Smith just manages to keep to the rules, but Shelley inventively breaks them. Yet his poem reads so well you dont notice. When an elderly friend recently asked me to read her some poems, it was natural to start with this one.

My youth added to its mystery. The long ago was unimaginable. (I did not do nearly enough history.) I revelled in the notion of a place so distant you could not visit yourself, but someone had to tell you about it. And I loved the irony. Here was the mighty of mighties telling all to despair, and his truth was that he too would despair.
Even then in my youth, or perhaps because I was young, I could see the poem was about the arrogance of the powerful and yet the transience of that power. I cant remember whether I knew, when I first read the poem, the term ‘hubris’ – ‘exaggerated pride or self-confidence, often resulting in fatal retribution’ – but the poem taught me the notion.

I often think of the Greek god Hubris, who is charged with dealing with those who show an impious disregard by thinking they are god-like. But I have never thought of him as vindictive. Those who do their best, succeed and take pride in their success need not be punished, providing they are humble. But those who are not, will be cut down, if only – as the poem says – by time. Hubris, and the poem, has haunted me all my life.

I once used ‘Ozymandias’ in a Listener column about the treatment of the environment in Saudi Arabia, where they still seem to think man can dominate the landscape without cost or consequence. While scrambling over the sand to a fourth century Christian church in sight of the giant Jubail gas-driven industrial complex on the Gulf Coast I was reminded of the final five lines.

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by: Percy Bysshe Shelley

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.’


by Horace Smith

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 fragments huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

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