I Am Ozymandias

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.

11 thoughts on “I Am Ozymandias

  1. It just goes to show that poetry is mostly about words/ phrases, and not so much about the theme/ sentiments. But then, I regard Shelley’s as one of the very best poems ever written – a sonnet equalled but never surpassed.

    • And also that there is sometimes more to be learned from doggrel. Beauty and truth are not the same, although both very fine and necessary in their own ways.

  2. “Cities that are overburdened with skyscrapers and megastructures face an added degree of failure. These buildings will never be renovated in the coming era of resource and capital scarcity… More likely we will see skyscrapers and megastructures convert from being assets to liabilities in very short order. We may not even have the financial mojo to pay for their disassembly and the salvage of their modular materials.”

    From Kunstler’s review of Krieger’s City on a Hill: Urban Idealism in America from the Puritans to the Present, at The American Conservative. Kunstler uses the coinage “techno-narcissism” in reference to our inhuman and anti-human mega-cities and their Titanic structures, which body forth well Shelley’s “frown, / And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command.”

    Most of the nose-pickers ignored the “Percy Bysshe” part of Shelley’s name and took “Shelley” to have been a woman. (It only says, “Shelley” atop the page in the anthology where they found “Ozymandias.”)

    • When an ancient city fell into ruin, the goatherds who took over could at lest build shanties from the rubble. The goatherds of any future collapse will not be able to detach an I beam, much less move it.

      • Going to have to go revisit “that fellaheen feeling” again.

        Im always struck by the fact that we have tons of extant Roman architecture. We started putting historical markers on anything built before 1900 at some point in tacit acknowledgement that nothing built after that point will last. Skyscrapers are disposable byproducts of industrialization. Kings of old would build castles to stand eternally on a strategic hilltop. The Burj Khalifa was built “to fit a bunch of people in it” and “be really tall”. In a civilizational collapse, inertia will keep the skyscrapers up until natures gentle but unrelenting nudge topples them.

      • It helps to build in stone in a place without much rain. Did you turn off comments at TD of VE? If not, there is a glitch.

  3. Pingback: I Am Ozymandias | Reaction Times

  4. What a wonderful find!
    But I question the period after “alone”.

    “In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone, stands a gigantic Leg … “

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