Sunday Pages: "Ozymandias"
A poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley is one of the brightest lights in the poetical firmament. In sports, there is an expression for when a player is truly special and not just a dude with some ball skills and good PR: “He is Him.” In the world of letters, Shelley is Him—a transcendent artist who was always true to himself, who brooked no compromise, even when it was bad for his health, his spirit, or his pocketbook, and who lived his life according to his highly evolved belief system. Also, his poems are sublime.
There are unassuming poets like Emily Dickinson, who quietly write their masterpieces while living quiet lives. Shelley occupies the other end of the spectrum. He was anything but quiet. He died at 29 but packed several lifetimes’ worth of frenzied activity into those three tumultuous decades. He was born in 1792—the year George Washington was re-elected and the French Revolutionary Wars between France and England began—came of age during the Regency Period and the Napoleonic Wars, and died with revolutionary sentiment brewing across the Continent. He came from money but was estranged from his father, and lived most of his life in financial distress. He was kicked out of Eton, along with his buddy Thomas Jefferson Hogg, for publishing a treatise titled “The Necessity of Atheism.” He didn’t believe in marriage or monogamy but got married twice, for legal reasons, fathered several children that we know of, and, for a time, appears to have lived in a “throuple.” He was an atheist, a Romantic, a political radical, a small-r republican, a vegetarian, a champion of freedom of speech (a real one, not whatever Elon Musk is), a pacifist who would inspire Tolstoy and Gandhi, and a friend to all the leading literary lights of his day.
In April of 1816, Shelley rented a house in Lake Geneva, where he, his friend Lord Byron, his wife Mary Shelley, and her step-sister Claire Clairmont—who was Shelley’s occasional lover and also Byron’s—took what is arguably the most productive writer’s retreat of all time. Byron recited Coleridge. Shelley had a panic attack that brought on hallucinations and kickstarted a poetical burst. Mary Shelley had the nightmare that inspired her to write Frankenstein, which Shelley would help edit. If you could ride the DeLorean back in time to any point in history, that’s where you go—that rented house, on that weekend, with those brilliant people, and hope some of the assembled genius rubs off on you.
During Shelley’s life, Britain had strict censorship laws that prevented a lot of his work from being published. (At that time, when you were canceled, you were actually canceled; you weren’t given a podcast and interviews on rightwing media outlets, and you didn’t hold court with Nazis on Twitter Spaces.) “The Masque of Anarchy,” for example, which I’ve written about previously on “Sunday Pages,” had to wait until well after his death to see the light of day. The work that was published, meanwhile, did not sell well. Reviewers, who tended to be stodgy and conservative, trashed him.
What resonates most for me in Shelley’s work is his indefatigable spirit. Reading the last few lines of “The Masque of Anarchy” or “Ode to the West Wind,” I can feel the passion, the energy, the hopefulness, the confidence, the moral certitude coursing through the lines. His work is electric. It hits like a bump of cocaine. There is nothing wishy-washy about Percy Bysshe. If he says “we shall prevail,” than we shall fucking prevail.
His most famous poem, “Ozymandias,” attacks the bad guys in a different way. A sonnet with a curious rhyme scheme, the poem is understated. The first word is “I,” but all the “I” does is quote the traveler; he never reappears. There is no pithy critique at the end, no conclusion or follow-up observation. He defers 13 of the 14 lines to this mysterious guest:
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart....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.”
Ozymandias is the Greek word for the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II. Shelley was inspired to write the poem because at the time, the British Museum had pillaged—er, acquired—a statue fragment from the mortuary temple of the pharaoh, from the 13th century BCE. But the poem is not really about Ramesses the Great. It’s about the contemporary Ozymandiases all around him—and all around us.
Shelley could see, as poets can, where the future was going. He was two hundred years ahead of his time. But he could also look back at the past with clarity of vision. Some of his poems urge us to go forth, to unite against our oppressors, to fight for what is right and true. “Ozymandias” reminds us that, mighty though the forces now in power may be, they will not endure; history will recall them as nothing more than pompous footnotes, as figures of ridicule—if they are remembered at all. This is the legacy that awaits the sneering likes of Elon Musk. Nothing beside remains.
All throughout Shelley’s life, powerful individuals did their level best to thwart him. What remains? Can we so much as name any of those people now? But this poem—a sneaky declaration of the poet’s enduring legacy; his answer to “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”—will be read as long as there are literate humans. Artistic power endures in a way that political power, financial power, and social power cannot. Great poems outlast even Supreme Court Justices.
Shelley died in a shipwreck off the coast of Italy. His distended body washed up on shore two weeks later, recognizable only by the clothes and the manuscript in his pocket. A funeral was held on the strand, and his body cremated—but his heart did not burn. The symbolism there is off the charts. The indestructible spirit can never die. Kindness prevails.
I leave you today, after a week that felt bleaker than usual, with the last lines of my favorite Shelley poem, “Ode to the West Wind:”
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened Earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
A heavy but important discussion on The Five 8 this Friday with Brynn Tannehill:
Photo credit: “The Funeral of Shelley” by Louis Édouard Fournier (1889).