This site’s traffic meter tells me that a couple of people were yesterday reading Tom’s old post on the sorrows of teaching Shelly’s “Ozymandias” to a class of nose-picking yokels. It so happens that I have been thinking about those “vast and trunkless legs of stone,” and so recently learned that Shelly wrote his sonnet in a competition with his friend and fellow poet Horace Smith. Because I believe that all Smiths should stick together and do what they can to boost the family brand, I dug up the rival poem and give it to you here. Even the healthy favoritism of family pride cannot bring me to pronounce Smith’s production superior to Shelly’s, but “On a Stupendous Leg of Granite” is not without merit.
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 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.
Underlining the moral by fast-forwarding to the future ruins of London may have been a poetic mistake, since Shelly’s “lone and level sands” universalize the lesson that pomp is fleeting and power is vain. But I question our preference for universal lessons because, curiously enough, lofty observations on “the human condition” never seem to apply to me. If you tell me “all is vanity,” it doesn’t seem to touch my vanities. If you tell me “men are fools,” the information seems to come with an exemption for me.
So fast-forwarding to the future ruins of London is a moral master-stroke if it succeeds in penetrating the armor of vanity and making me feel that the “wonderful, but unrecorded, race” is mine. I am Ozymandias and my city will someday be that annihilated place.