It’s been a long summer of marking and a bit of a hiatus between the series of blog posts on Love and Relationships for the AQA GCSE English Literature Anthology, and this next series on Power and Conflict. I have to say that there’s some good poems in here – including my very favourite of all, Ozymandias, the one I’m starting with. It’s going to be a looooong post because I love this poem and also because there is such a lot of rubbish already circulating about it. I think it’s time to put a stop to the insanity of explaining that it’s a sonnet because powerful men are in love with themselves or that it was a poem about a statue imported in 1818 (that’s you, Wikipedia, you unreliable thing, you!). This post is going to be split into two, since it’s an epic poem to cover. Here, I’ll look at form, voice and context, then structure and language in the next. For my favourite of all poems, it deserves that much indeed.
Why do I love it so much, you ask? It’s just a poem after all.
Ah, yes, it’s just a poem. It’s a neat, neat bit of poetry.
I don’t just love it because it’s neat though.
To me, it’s a commentary on everything that there is to say about power. That’s why it’s such a good poem. It’s about life, success, power and everything in between. Not only does it make a powerful and profound statement about humanity, but it does so in 14 lines. Books, take note. Why bother, if you can boil it down to something so pithy that you can put it on a postcard and yet capture what it means to be human within those brief lines.
So…. Percy Shelley. I categorised Ozymandias as ‘dense but divine’ on my post about Love’s Philosophy which is exactly what it is. This is THE poem where all the words, the breaks, the punctuation, the form, the structure, everything is worth commenting on. I think you could write books about this poem. If Love’s Philosophy is my favourite love poem, Ozymandias is my favourite ‘everything’ poem.
Shelley is one of your bad boy poet celebrities of the early nineteenth century. If poets had celebrity versions, Shelley would be right up there with Kim and Kanye. In fact, with his remarkably young wife, Mary, they were a literature power couple of the 1800s. Born at the tail end of the 1700s, Shelley wasn’t particularly famous in his own lifetime, but his poetry certainly floats a lot of boats these days. By the time he died, aged 29, when he drowned in Italy, he’d attracted a small following. He was far too political for most people in their lifetime, but he caught on eventually. Also, I guess he was far too talented, because this poem – well, it’s a wordy work of art.
So, context… Ozymandias was published in The Examiner, a political newspaper, in January 1818. It was a period of history when the English were very good at going and “finding” treasures in Egypt and Greece, bringing them back to the British Museum to be displayed. In 1817, the Elgin Marbles were put on display in the museum, which was kind of controversial, and Greece have been asking for their national treasure to be returned ever since. They weren’t the only treasures we pinched. Antiquity and ancient objects were a cultural fascination for the English. I don’t doubt that all of these archeological “finds” had some influence on Shelley’s poem, thinking about the stories that such artefacts tell us. I don’t think you can look at the Pyramids or the Parthenon and not wonder about the people to whom they were significant. Plus, boats of antiquities came in regularly – one was expected around the time of the poem – and no doubt Leigh Hunt the editor of the paper thought he’d capture a bit of the national fascination to sell a few more papers.
Here’s a really great reading by Bryan Cranston with a fab animation
First off, it’s a sonnet. No, that doesn’t mean it’s a love poem. I don’t want you to look at this poem and think love. Yes, sonnets started off being love poems. Yes, Shakespeare wrote them. But so did a bunch of the Metaphysical poets, who wrote about love, life, death and God in sonnets, a good 200 years before Shelley did. So you don’t have to do any explaining about why it’s a love poem – it’s not and you don’t have to justify that or try to make some random loose connection. Sonnets had stopped being love poems for a good couple of hundred years or so by the time Shelley wrote this. They can be love poems, but they don’t have to be. You just have to think about the following: What does it mean that it’s a sonnet? Why did Shelley write it as a sonnet?
For me, a sonnet allows you to take a mammoth load of ideas, that are floating around like random sheep on a mountainside. A sonnet brings them all together, marshalls them like a great sheepdog would do, and pens them in. It takes the difficult to define, the complex, the complicated, and it makes them solid and neat. A sonnet is a little box to squash a big, complex idea into. To me, it’s not much different than the haiku, which work in the same way. It takes these big moments about life and – bang! – puts them in a tidy box. The sonnet form is one of the most remarkable things about this poem. Lots of poets tackle big ideas in the sonnet form, like John Donne’s Holy Sonnets (1633) and George Herbert’s Holy Sonnets or blindness (Milton).
So… yes, it’s a sonnet. No, it’s not in any way about love. Not even the types of power-mad rulers like Ozymandias being in love with themselves. That’s just preposterous. It’s not brilliant or revolutionary not to write about love in a sonnet – plenty of poets had done it before.
So why has he chosen a sonnet, if you ask me?
A sonnet takes the crazy, overwhelming, nonsensical thoughts in your head that swim around causing all manner of distraction, and they pen them into a nice, mathematical, rhythmic, structured shape. Imagine thoughts as a field full of hundreds of cats. A sonnet takes those crazy cats and puts them in a tidy, organised, neat little pen. No craziness. No distraction.
Not only that, sonnets are really hard to write. First you need a rhyme scheme – A-B-A-B-C-D-C-D E-F-G-E-F-G in this case. So you need to find words that make sense and rhyme too. Always hard. Then you need to make sure you express it in a regular amount of syllables – often 10. So you have to make all the other words fit in 14 10-syllable lines that rhyme. Then you have to think of the stresses so that words go dee-DUM dee-DUM dee-DUM dee-DUM dee-DUM.
Well, this sonnet doesn’t do that. Not quite so easily. It pops out of the box from time to time. Like the line “My name is Ozymandias – King of Kings;” because you really want to say OZ-ee-MAND-I-as as five syllables, but you have to kind of rush it as Oz-ee-MAND-yas to make it fit, which you really don’t want to do. I’m going with Bryan Cranston’s pronunciation. Something about that name, not least its complicated combination of letters that are so unfamiliar in English, makes you really want to drag it out. OZ-ee-man-DI-as. I mean, these old Egyptian Kings had enormous names, Tutankhamun, for example. So that is an awkward “10” syllable line that depends on you skimming over his name. I don’t care how you pronounce his name, by the way. It’s totally unimportant.
Other than that, though, all those lines fit the standard ten-syllable pattern that you might have been led to expect.
It also has a rhyme scheme, as you would also expect. Only that in itself is kind of Byzantine in complexity. ABABACDCEDEFEF. It also seems to be structured in a way that breaks up the sonnet as 11/3 (except for the rhyme scheme which seems to want to have a break between line 5 and 6) The reason that it seems to be 11/3 is that ! at the end of line 11, which splits the poem effectively into two sentences. I’ve seen poorly-punctuated poems circulating on the web with a full stop after “fed” on line 8, which does make it into an 8/6, but the version published in my very old Bloom and Trilling is definitely 11/3.
It’s a very atypical rhyme scheme, which you don’t find anywhere else – perhaps Shelley’s stamp of individuality, or maybe just something simple like finding great rhymes to go together. I’m not at all persuaded by anything that says it’s a mix of other types of sonnet, like Shakespearean or Petrarchan. It’s a Shelley thing. Nor do all sonnets have 8/6 breaks in octaves and sestets. It’s loosely anti-tradition, if you count tradition as a 30-year sonnet fad in the 1500s, but it’s in keeping with Milton’s sonnets – and he was a poet who had a huge influence on the Romantic poets. So don’t believe any nonsense about it blending Petrarch or Shakespeare, or try to justify it. It is atypical because it’s Shelley.
Is it all rhymed though?
To my northern ear, “stone” and “frown” don’t sit together well as a rhyme. Those “o” sounds are far too different. I do think there are ways you could say them to make them sound alike though, so it’s not implausible that they were rhymed. Either that or you decide that they are half-rhyme. I think it’s compelling to consider “appear” and “despair” alongside them too if you want to add weight to the argument that it’s half-rhyme not full rhyme, but I think it’s possible these too could have rhymed, though since “despair” clearly rhymes with “bare”, “appear” really doesn’t fit. In that case, we have five lines of half-rhyme. So why is this?
Half-rhyme creates a dissonant, eerie effect. Right but not quite. It puts it on edge. In this poem, though, I’d argue that it does another thing: it makes it more akin to human speech, which is what the poem is. I think the half-rhyme takes away the jauntiness that rhyme would give it and makes it more like natural speech. Couple that with the offset rhyme scheme and the rhythm that I’ll explore shortly and you’ve got a poem that is more akin to natural speech than it is to a poem as such. That’s in keeping with the traveller’s tale. However, if you like it as full rhyme, which many do, then it’s in keeping with the sonnet style, so whether you think it’s half rhyme or you think that it’s full rhyme, it works either way.
The rhythm is partial iambic pentameter, and then not in other parts. He uses rhythms that more mimic natural speech than anything and lay emphasis on particular words rather than fitting some unnatural, imposed rhythm. Couple that with the enjambment and punctuation and you’ve got a poem that reads very much like an oral account. It’s all very much in keeping with the voice. As for the rhythm, enjambment and use of caesura, we’ll explore that as we go since it impacts more on the language than anything else.
The poem is a layered narrative. First, we have the poet, constructing it all. That may or may not be the “I” voice of the first line. It could be a persona in itself. Technically, that person isn’t very important, since it’s the story told by the “traveller” that is important. So why have this layered narrative – the traveller recounting a tale of something he’s seen directly to us wouldn’t need the added layer of the “I”. Shelley could have adopted the persona of the traveller himself too, had he wanted. So why these layers of removal?
Statue in an “antique land” – traveller – persona/poet/narrator – us.
In fact, Shelley could just have described the statue itself without any mention of a traveller or a poet.
Statue in an “antique land” – us. Much more simple.
The layered narrative technique is one his wife used in telling Frankenstein. But what effect does it have?
For me, it’s a story-telling device. We use it often to add a kind of distance to an event, as if our own viewpoint is not enough. A mysterious traveller telling the tale certainly adds to the mystery. It’s kind of a story-within-a-story (except there is no story surrounding the tale the traveller tells) But stories framing other stories are great story-telling devices. Arabian Nights is told in this way, as is The Odyssey and The Canterbury Tales. It’s a great device to add layers of mystery. Like why would a mysterious traveller come and tell you – with no warm-up or reasoning – about a broken statue in the desert?! Imagine if some random traveller dude just stopped you in the street and told you a story about some random thing he’d seen on his travels. I know in Ozymandias that we don’t have any context for the poet’s story – did the traveller know him? Did the traveller stop him in the street just to tell this story? What happened after the traveller had told this story? It’s all very, very strange. For me, it creates a kind of dream-like unreality. It’s definitely something to consider, why Shelley has used this style. Why would he use reported speech in this way and not tell it directly? What effect does it have, having the tale told by the traveller to the poet and then to us?
By the way, Shelley was a revolutionary and there’s not a chance in hell he was writing in code so that he could criticise the king at the time, who’d been going insane for the better part of ten years by the time the poem was written and England was effectively ruled by Prince Regent, George IV from 1811. I’m pretty sure George III didn’t care less who wrote a poem about him, especially when that person spent the better part of their life on the continent anyway. Plus, in 1819, Shelley wrote England in 1819 which calls the king “old, mad, blind, despised and dying.” Can you get more critical than that? More likely Shelley was influenced by that crazy neighbour Napoleon Bonaparte and the whole crazy history of France, just across the waters. Revolution, power, dictators, you don’t have to wonder where Shelley looked for inspiration. So if you are wondering why it’s a retelling of a retelling, it’s more to do with mystery if you ask me, and a flavour for the layered narrative, and less to do with his fears over what might happen to his pretty little head if Mad King George III read it and worked out some “code”. Pretty sure, upon reading England in 1819 that Shelley didn’t need to “distance” himself from writing Ozymandias in a way that criticised kings. If you don’t believe me, read it and ask yourself if Shelley sounds like the kind of guy who’d need to write a poem criticising George III in some kind of code about Egyptian Pharoahs. He certainly doesn’t care for mincing his words elsewhere.
As for the narrative itself, since this a poem that contains a brief narrative of a sort, it’s a kind of timeless and placeless narrative – we have no concept of where this meeting takes place, or when. For me, this adds to the universality of it, meaning that it is easy to imagine this happening wherever you are, or whenever you are. It’s another way that Shelley makes it universal.
Although the time that the poem was written undoubtedly had some bearing on the choice of subject matter. The early 1800s were a time of great exploration in Egypt (and Greece) with many relics being uncovered. If they were easy enough to transport, they were often brought back to Western Europe or sold to museum collections or private individuals. One such statue was brought to the British Museum in 1817, that of The Younger Memnon, which is a granite statue of Ramses II, a.k.a. Ozymandias. Didn’t he have a lot of names?! However, that statue is neither scornful nor contemptuous. Not only that, whilst we know a lot now about Ramses II, Shelley undoubtedly didn’t. We know now that he had an incredibly long reign, that he oversaw a massive expansion of Egypt, that he was no doubt the Pharoah in power when the slaves led by Moses rebelled and ran away. Shelley had never been to Egypt and there’s no way he could have seen a statue like this himself, the poem is most likely entirely fictional and he just picked out the name of a king at random. Unless you were a Biblical scholar, the name of Ramses would have meant little to you. I’m not sure Shelley, as a committed atheist who didn’t believe in God would have therefore been hot on his Bible studies. Both the name of the Pharoah in the poem, Ozymandias, and the line “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair” are taken from a well-known Greek version. That said, the sphinx was uncovered around about the time the poem was written, so if you were interested in Egyptology, you’d no doubt have been very interested about all these colossal statues being uncovered from the sands. Because we know so much about the circumstances in which the poem was written (the day after Boxing Day, 1817, and published less than a month later, in competition with Horace Smith, with both writers competing to write a sonnet about “Ozymandias, the king of kings” whose story was popular at the time) we can say quite easily what may have or may not have influenced the poem. The discovery of the head of Ramses II didn’t make the news until March 1818 when the ship carrying it docked in the UK. Keats, poet friend of Shelley, saw the head for the first time in 1819, so the story Shelley tells is most likely based on the story of Diodorus Siculus, rather than what Wikipedia might tell you! As you can see from the name of the statue, they thought it was someone called Memnon, and nobody could read the hieroglyphics for a good twenty years after its arrival, when they realised then it was Ramses II. Shelley liked the subject of Egypt and he wrote a lot about it, in Alastor, for example. Thus, it most probably wasn’t inspired by any one particular statue that had been found. That’s important. It’s not an accidental “wow, thinking about this statue caused me to have a profound understanding” but more a “power isn’t a good thing, dudes, and here’s a little story to give you insight.” You can, of course, access the very wonderful source document “Travellers from an Antique Land: Shelley’s Inspiration for Ozymandias” by John Rodenbeck, and find out a little more about the context if you’re an English teacher, but if you’re just taking your GCSEs, you’ve really no need to know about it (though you might find it interesting and it’s not very difficult to read as academic documents go). It certainly puts a lot of the Youtube myths to bed.
In all, then, a sonnet, yes, but not a love sonnet. A way of expressing a huge and enormous idea in a simple way. Influenced perhaps by what was happening at the time, but much more universal than that. A Shelley sonnet, not some weird hybrid Shakespeare-Petrarch sonnet. A poem with a great deal of context which makes you forget that the ideas contained within are universal truths.
How do I love thee, Percy Bysshe Shelley? Let me count the ways…
And I’ll continue next week with an analysis of the language and ideas contained within the poem.
If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about the AQA GCSE English Literature Anthology, please send me an email and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.