Poetry Project I: Ozymandias, by P.B. Shelley

Some time ago I asked Bishop Williamson some questions about various poems and poets and asked if we could put together a series giving a Catholic perspective on poetry. The Bishop really dove in and we have, as a result, a feature in the September 2008 Angelus. There will be more to come in this occasional series.

An American friend with a genuine love of English poetry asked me if I would be willing to answer questions he might ask on some well-known English poems. There are readers of The Angelus who may still be puzzled that Catholics can interest themselves in pagan literature, but the principle to be applied is that of the great Catholic Doctor, St. Augustine, when he said, “All truth belongs to us Christians.”

Famous poets in any language have become famous only because they tell truths about man and life, even about God. And if they make mistakes, nobody better than Catholics should be able to distinguish truth from error, so as to profit from the truth and leave to one side the error. The Lord God seems to bestow on men talents, like the poetic talent, more widely than he gives the gift of the Faith. What a loss for Catholics if they will not profit by the multitude of talents outside the household of the Faith!

A case in point is the first poet chosen by my friend for comment–Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). Shelley is one of England’s five famous Romantic poets, all living around the turn of the 18th into the 19th century. The other four are Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Byron. All of them are dealing in their poetry with a new mental world emerging out of the industrial revolution, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. An old order is going, going, gone, and mankind is off to the races of modern times. Broadly, the world used to revolve around God. From now on it will revolve around man. Shelley himself was an atheist. He died young, racing a lightweight yacht in stormy weather off the coast of Italy. It seems unlikely that he saved his soul, but that did not stop him from writing some of the poems that appear in every collection of English poetry.

One of these poems is “Ozymandias,” my friend’s selection for comment. It is short enough to be printed here. Then a few words by way of analysis, a Catholic take on Romanticism, and finally my friend’s questions.

Here is “Ozymandias”:

I met a traveler 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.

The theme of this poem is the passing of human glory. The once great king, Ozymandias, modeled on an Egyptian Pharaoh, ruled domineeringly over a great empire. In his own lifetime he had a huge statue of himself erected to impress his subjects, who must have been then numerous in this part of the world, but it is now desert. The colossal statue has likewise been wasted by the passing of time, so that of the once bustling imperial scene nothing now remains but wreckage and sand–“Sic transit gloria mundi,” said the Latins–thus passes the glory of the world.

The imagery of the poem lies in the description of the desert scene. It is a vivid description, with one dramatic word after another that punches over the message: “antique…vast…shattered…frown…sneer…stamped…despair…colossal…wreck…boundless.” Such vocabulary builds up a powerful effect, climaxing in the eleventh line, dying away again in the return of the last three lines to the desert, where the poem began. In the beginning there is nature. Then man comes to “strut and fret his hour upon the stage,” but finally all that is left is – nature. Deserted nature at that.

The meter of the poem is that of a classic 14-line sonnet, except that Shelley has interestingly interlocked the six rhymes, so as to sweep the reader straight through from beginning to end. Whereas a Shakespearean sonnet is always divided by the rhymes into three blocks of four lines with a final rhyming two lines, and the content often divides between these blocks, eight lines (sub-divided into four and four) against six, with the final couplet clinching the whole sonnet, “Ozymandias” may on examination divide into eight, three and three lines, but the effect is rather of a continuous build towards the key word of the whole poem, “despair”, with a quietening down afterwards.

“Despair!” is indeed the key-word of the poem. Nothing in the 14 lines gives the hope that human affairs have any final meaning. The most that can be said, Shelley seems to tell us, is that human affairs can be impressive and mighty for as long as they last, but–as he clearly suggests through the inscription on the pedestal of the broken statue–they never do last.

And so we arrive at the strength and weakness of Romanticism. Coming at the end of the 18th century, and reacting against its general limiting of human life within the bounds of human reason–rationalism–the Romantics do have the advantage of re-opening wide perspectives of human life and feeling. Ozymandias was indeed once great. His ambition to command as King of Kings went well beyond reasonable bounds. Like Solomon in the Old Testament, he was driven to recognize that “all is vanity” (Eccles. 1:2), but even if he failed to achieve anything that lasted, nevertheless he affirmed by the striving of his “works” that there is more to life than just living out one’s life-span in material comfort with social security.

So against the complacent materialism of a modern world shutting out God and closing down human beings, the Romantics score heavily. Where they fail is that their affirmation of the Something More is not usually hooked to any reality tougher than their own instincts and feelings that there must be Something More. But supposing there is not? Feelings alone are not enough. And that is why Ozymandias finishes in despair. He sensed that human greatness had a meaning, and he lived greatly as though it did, but he never found that meaning. And so for Shelley there seems to remain nothing but the desert, forerunner of T. S. Eliot’s famous “Wasteland.”

Therefore the Romantics correctly see that sick modern man is making life into a poor affair. They protest, eloquently. They are right to protest. But unless they diagnose the sickness as being the cutting out of God, and unless they re-anchor their instincts and feelings in the greatness of the true God who invites all men to Heaven, then a few generations later the Romantics’ beautiful “feelings” and noble “instincts” and great “longings” will be cast out as so much kidology. Man lives by Truth. He demands truth to live by. And that is why the 20th century, however much it may have “longed” to be able to continue “feeling good” about life, saw a strong anti-Romantic reaction. Listen to the howling disappointment screamed out by the Rock musicians, grandchildren of the Romantics.

My friend asks if in “Ozymandias” Shelley is railing against monarchy. Only secondarily, I would say. It is true that he belonged to the Revolutionary age getting rid of kings, but primarily he is railing against the apparent meaninglessness of what seems greatest in human life.

A second question asks if the “slouching beast” of W. B. Yeats’ “Second Coming” relates to Shelley’s Ozymandias. Interesting question. In that also-famous poem, Yeats imagines some Egyptian-style beast coming out of the “sands of the desert” to solve the modern world’s grave problems. Yeats might, like Shelley and T. S. Eliot, be evoking the desert to suggest what modern man has made of his world.

A third question, given the Egyptian setting of “Ozymandias,” is what travel meant, then and now. In Shelley’s day there were not even railways, so the journey to Egypt will have meant weeks of land and sea travel, with then only camels to reach the kind of monument commemorated in “Ozymandias.” So “an antique land…far away” had a sense for Shelley quite different from our own time, when the Pyramids are no further away than one or two aeroplane flights and a ride in an air-conditioned bus. Modern transportation may have its advantages, but it has virtually destroyed distance, and with distance it has destroyed the evocativeness and romance of “antique lands…far away.” A follow-up question asked what travel should mean to us. Modern means of transportation are here to stay, so the romantic interest of distant lands will not come back until and if a global upheaval–easy to imagine–grounds the aeroplanes. Then men may remember Shelley and say, “Look on these ruined
airports, and despair!”

Until then, travel in a homogenized globe is neither here nor there. What Catholics do need to grasp is that with their Faith giving them a real grasp on the true God, they can live both by the reasonableness of the 18th century and by the wide dimensions of the 19th century, without having to be fragmented between the two. The True Church has the real solutions for the human problems of all ages. All that we need to do is to live by our Faith. Sacred Heart of Jesus, give us your grace to live by our Faith!

Stephen Heiner

Stephen lives in Paris, France, where he attends Mass celebrated by the clergy of the IMBC. He founded True Restoration in 2006.

You may also like...

6 Responses

  1. Mr. Heiner,

    Over the last few days, while smoking my evening pipe and walking about the gardens, I have been ponder romanticism, so I found this piece by His Lordship quite interesting. I had been thinking, provide it be tempered by truth so as to enlighten the intellect, romanticism could be a useful medium. Nothing here suggested otherwise, unless I have misread the piece. Though I suppose, one could argue, that this would not be true or pure romanticism. My interest was in what way the arts can give light to the intellect through appealing to the heart so as to unite both in the truth.

  2. Dick says:

    I have always considered Ozymandias to be a ridicule of any man/all men who define greatness by a standard he/they have concocted themselves. I can be great by my own standards, and even force those around me to acknowledge my greatness, but in the grand scheme of God’s plan, I am as much of a nothing as anyone else. Shelly was correct, but missed the mark by a mile. He didn’t ever come up with an answer to the question “Against what true standard do we all measure up as nothing?” He recognized that it was there, but, since he was an atheist, he could not bring himself to define something he would have to recognize as God.

  3. Hmmm. I always thought Yeats’ “slouching beast” was the anti-Christ . . .

  4. Well that’s the thing about poetry. You’re not limited to one narrow interpretation.

  5. True enough. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series. It’s good of His Excellency to give us his time like this. It would also be interesting to see a list from him of recommended reading in Western literature like the one Dr. White did for Hugh Hewitt’s listeners.

  6. piers says:

    If you will pay attention to the second sentence of this poem, you will see that the object of “survive” is “the hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.” The hand is the hand of the unknown artist who made this statue of Ozymandias and mocked his sneer of cold command even as he was making a (virtually) permanaent image of it– which is all that survives of this megomaniacal fellow: that, and his only recorded words, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:/ Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”

    The ‘heart’ is the heart that fed that passion for dominance with its sneer of cold command. “Look on my works,” he says; what works? The only ‘work’ that survives is the work of that annonymous artist who is being honored here across the ages by another artist.