Happy World Poetry Day Everybody!
In honour of the written word, we're talking about two poems by the same name. Ozymandias, one, more well known, written by Percy B. Shelley, the other by Horace Smith.
Shelley was an English romantic poet, known to be a but of a rebel and revolutionary. Ozymandias is one of his most famous poems and was first published in the January 11, 1818 edition of The Examiner.
Ozymandias was the Greek name for the Pharaoh Rameses II, also known as Rameses the Great. The name is taken from a description written by Diodorus Siculus. He wrote a 40 book Bibliotheca Historica and mentions a Theban Monument to Rameses II- The inscription reads:
‘I am Osymandyas, king of kings; if any would know how great I am, and where I lie, let him excel me in any of my works.’ (I, p.53)
The poems by Shelley and Horace themselves were written in 1817 as part of a competition between the two authors. Shelley was entertaining some friends at his house near Marlowe between December 26 and 28, 1817. Conversation regarding Egypt and Diodorus probably came up, sparking the friendly competition between friends to write a piece about the “king of kings”, a phrase that had become commonplace amongst romantic writers of the time.
Percy B. Shelley
It’s thought that this whole conversation and subsequent competition came about due to an announcement that the British Museum had acquired a large fragment of a statue of Rameses II from the 13th century BCE. It was found by none other than The Great Belzoni- one of my favourite early archaeologists and was reportedly on its way to England.
Of course, Shelley had never set foot in Egypt, and people at the time had no clue about the amazing reputation of Rameses II other than mentions in the Bible. But Shelley was a romantic, and like all romantics, possessed an amazing imagination, a feeling of wonderment with all things far away and captivating.
Both poems are somewhat sad and melancholic, as they both explore the ravages of time, the impermanence of history, and warn against the pride and hubris of great leaders. The point out the insignificance of human beings and the inevitable, indiscriminate destruction of all things great. And it’s not just for people of power or greatness, it can stand for all pride and arrogance in humanity.
They say the pen is mightier than the sword, and Shelley proves that here, exemplifying that art and literature outlast any sort of empire and legacy of power. Shelley and Smith take this claim of power and completely render is meaningless. Even Shelley’s framing of the poem, the story being told to the author by “a traveller from and antique land”. He’s adding one extra person between the reader and the epitaph itself, further minimizing the greatness once declared on it.
Read the poems below, and pick your favourite! Is Shelley's really the one deserving of all the spotlight, or does Smith's inspire you more?
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.
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 fragment huge, and stops to guess What powerful but unrecorded race Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
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Looking to find out more?
Rodenbeck, John. "Travelers from an Antique Land: Shelley's Inspiration for 'Ozymandias,'" Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, no. 24 ("Archeology of Literature: Tracing the Old in the New"), 2004, pp. 121–148
Richmond, H. M. "Ozymandias and the Travelers." Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. 11, (Winter, 1962), pp. 65–71.
Bequette, M. K. "Shelley and Smith: Two Sonnets on Ozymandias." Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. 26, (1977), pp. 29–31
Hebron, Stephen, An Introduction to 'Ozymandias', British Library, 2014.