The Poet's Revenge

February 27, 2018

Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, the poet’s revenge. Whatever your opinion of our current president, one thing’s for sure: the man can boast. I can play you clips of him saying he’s a genius and his nuclear button is bigger than Kim Jong-un’s, but you’ve already heard it so I’ll spare you. This podcast is largely a Trump-free zone, but put him in the back of your mind as we talk about “Ozymandias” by the great Romantic, Percy Bysshe Shelley. The poem is 200 years old and it’s one of the most famous sonnets in the language. Joining me in his apartment in New York city is David Mikis, a scholar and professor who wrote about the poem in The Art of the Sonnet, a book he co-authored with Stephen, now Stephanie Burt. We excerpted the part about “Ozymandias” as a poem guide that’s up on our site. David, tell us about the circumstances behind the writing of this poem. What was Shelley up to, what was going on?

David Mikics: At this point, Shelley was living in the countryside north of London with Mary Shelley, his wife, and with Mary’s relative Claire Clairmont. Shelley was very enthusiastic about some recent news of discoveries in Egypt. The Italian explorer / adventurer / scoundrel Belzoni had succeeded in getting a fragmentary head of the Pharaoh Ramses the 2nd from thieves in Egypt. The head had not yet come to England, but Shelley had heard about it. He actually never saw it. It’s now in the British museum, it appeared a few months after Shelley left England forever in early 1818. But Shelley had heard the news of it. On Boxing Day, that’s the day after Christmas in England, he and his friend Horace Smith who was an investor and a poet, a patron of poets, had a little competition. They each wrote a poem about the head that had been founds, the head that had been discovered in Egypt. And Horace Smith’s poem —


Curtis Fox: Yeah, I remember the title of this is a rather unfortunate title.


David Mikics: “On a Stupendous Leg of Granite Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt with the Inscription Inserted Below”.

Curtis Fox: I’m already bored before the title.


David Mikics: It didn’t live, that poem. But Shelley’s did, and “Ozymandias” is one of his most famous poems I would say, with “Mont Blanc” and “Ode to the West Wind”.

Curtis Fox: Yeah, it’s one of the most famous poems in the language frankly. So he heard about this statue, it had yet to come to England. But he also heard about an inscription written. What was the inscription, exactly?

David Mikics: Yeah, the inscription comes from a Roman era historian named Diodorus Siculus, who had described a statue of a pharaoh named Ozymandias; that’s the Greek name of a guy more commonly known as Ramesses the 2nd, who could be the pharaoh referred to in the book of Exodus, we don’t know. This is from the 13th century before the common era. So Diodorus reports that the inscription on the statue, which he said was the biggest statue in Egypt, he reports that the inscription was “King of Kings, Ozymandias am I. If any want to know how great I am and where I lie, let him out do me in my work”.


Curtis Fox: And that’s what got Shelley all excited, and that’s what made him write this poem. Let’s hear it. Several years ago we got the actor Michael Stuhlbarg to read it for us.


Michael Stuhlbarg: Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley


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.”


Curtis Fox: That was Michael Stuhlbarg reading Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias”. Let’s go through it more slowly. It begins very Romantically. So many Romantic poems could have begun like this; “I met a travelled from an antique land who said”. And then the rest of the poem is the traveller himself elaborately describing a statue in ruins. Why does he frame it like this? Why doesn’t he just have the traveller tell his tale?


David Mikics: Interesting question. It’s a real faint. It’s a trick Shelley plays by beginning the sonnet with “I”. There really is no “I” in the poem, this is just a quick framing device and then there’s a further frame, that is the “I” and then the traveller, and then we have the monument. The monument of course is meant to somehow sum up the king. We go through different frames in the poem, further and further. And what do we find at the center? Turns out we find nothing. When Shelley says near the end of the poem, we’ll get there when we get there. But he says, “Nothing beside remains”. What he means is that there’s nothing around the statue, but really the statue itself is a king of nothing. The king says in the words of the inscription:


Michael Stuhlbarg: My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!


David Mikics: Well, its a ruin. It’s a big nothing.

Curtis Fox: That’s the big irony of the poem. Let’s go back to the beginning of what the traveller says, it’s a description of Ozymandias’ sculpted face.


Michael Stuhlbarg:

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;


Curtis Fox: There’s a lot packed into those lines, that’s really the heart of the sonnet right there. Can you unpack it?


David Mikics: One thing that’s interesting here, and a thing that readers tend to stumble over, is why is the sculptor in the poem? Why should we care about the sculptor? First of all, we have this immense savage undermining of this tyrant pharaoh’s commanding visage as it’s supposed to be. The visage is shattered. And the “frown and wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command”, is reduced to fragments. But the sculptor, “Tell that its sculptor well those passions read which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things”. So the passions of the pharaoh that are stamped on the lifeless sculpture. But then this line, “The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed”.


Curtis Fox: That’s the most baffling line of the sonnet.


David Mikics: Especially “heart that fed”, that phrase. “The hand that mocked them” — here you have to remember that the word “mocked” meant two things. In a neutral sense it meant simply to describe something. Shakespeare used it in that sense, so that when an artist draws something or paints something —


Curtis Fox: To mock up something.

David Mikics: Exactly. But here it of course has the other sense as well, that is that the artist is a sculptor who’s doing an official job and presumably the pharaoh was very pleased with this rendition of him. In fact, he doesn’t look so bad by the way. Ramesses the 2nd doesn’t seem to have a sneer of cold command. Very appealing …


Curtis Fox: A little poetic license there.


David Mikics: Of course, Shelley didn’t see the sculpture. So the sculptor reads those passions within the pharaoh. He’s also mocking those passions. He realizes that those passions are futile. That they’re furious but basically empty. This is part of Shelley’s attitude towards tyrants in general. He thought of George the 3rd as his tyrant. George the 3rd was ruling England at the time.


Curtis Fox: And Shelley was a radical democrat.


David Mikics: He was a radical democrat and an atheist. At Oxford, he had written a pamphlet called “The Necessity of Atheism”. His children with his first wife were taken away from him and sent to a foster home because he was an atheist.


Curtis Fox: He was a martyr to atheism (LAUGHING).


David Mikics:(LAUGHING). Shelley also a little bit after this wrote another great poem, “England in 1819” in which he excoriates George the 3rd as an “old, mad, blind, despised and dying king”. He describes the situation of the group of protestors who had just been killed in the “Peterloo Massacre” by British soldiers, “a people starved and stabbed in the untilled field”. It’s a tremendously powerful poem about as Shelley sees it the tyrant who was ruling England. This is the same subject as “Ozymandias”, except that in the case of “Ozymandias” everything is taken away. There’s no populous, there’s no masses of people around him.


Curtis Fox: His power isn’t there anymore, all that’s left is this weird record of him lying in shards. But by bringing in the sculptor, isn’t he comparing political power to the power of art? Isn’t there some kind of contest going on here?


David Mikics: That is the contest. Shelley himself, he was not only a radical democrat, but he was also a messianic thinker. He wanted to remake human nature, he wanted to save the human race, he wanted to rebound who we are and what we do on newly humane principles.


Curtis Fox: He failed, though.


David Mikics: He failed. He says you might have noticed, he failed in the end of his aim. But he was very serious about it. He was a revolutionary top to toe with every fibre of his being. This was his intense prophetic quality. He saw himself as a prophet. And as we know from the Hebrew Bible, the prophets see themselves as much more powerful, in the true sense of powerful, than kings. They’re the ones who really know what justice is, they’re the ones who really demand the right. That’s the way that Shelley saw himself.


Curtis Fox: How is he seeing the sculptor in the poem?


David Mikics: The sculptor in the poem I think is someone who clearly has no choice. We don’t know who the sculptor was, number one. The sculptor is not like Shelley in the sense that Shelley had written poems that called for the revolution, poems that called for the overturning of this corrupt, desecrated order that was ruling Europe, ruling the whole world really in Shelley’s own day. In this poem, we have a sculptor who simply does his work. But in a way, it’s not so simple. “The hand that mocked them”, that is what the sculptor is doing is not just honouring the king — that’s what he’s paid for — but also mocking him or insulting him by making it clear that the “sneer of cold command” is really what this pharaoh is all about.


Curtis Fox: And the sculptor got it in there without Ozymandias realizing he was being mocked.


David Mikics: Exactly.


Curtis Fox: It’s like a portrait just of Stalin putting a sneer on his face or something.


David Mikics: Exactly. As we all know, we have certain leaders who like to appear scowling.


Curtis Fox: Yes, I don’t know who you’re referring to.

David Mikics:(LAUGHING) Somehow fancy to be a Churchillian or dignified scowl. But in this case, the cold command is something that’s the vehicle of a deep, profound irony that is there’s nothing there to command.


Michael Stuhlbarg: Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.


Curtis Fox: So here’s the question, how is Shelley the poet writing this poem not like the sculptor who seemed to delight in mocking Ozymandias? Isn’t Shelley also mocking Ozymandias?


David Mikics: What Shelley is doing here I think is showing us how the boasts of tyrants simply echo in the echo chamber of history down the centuries. There is a necessary irony to them, and a necessary emptiness to them, that when the monument says in the name of Ozymandias, “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”, no one is going to obey that command. No one looks on these works and despairs.


Curtis Fox: Now it’s a joke, now it’s an ironic joke.


David Mikics: Exactly, it becomes an ironic joke. And then he goes on to say “Round the decay of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare the lone and level sands stretch far away”. That’s the punch line. The punch line is this empty landscape. The poem by the way was read by Walter White towards the end of Breaking Bad, that remarkable TV series, and we had exactly the same point.


Michael Stuhlbarg: Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.


David Mikics: What are your ambitions, your vein glory when matched with the desert of the South West which stretches on and on and you’re just a tiny figure in that landscape.


Curtis Fox: But doesn’t that beg the question, we’re all in that desert. All human accomplishment amounts to nothing in the long course of time. So what is Shelley’s poem telling us about that dilemma? You could be a tyrant and have power beyond the seas, or you could be just an ordinary person. Everything we do is going to be washed away. What’s his response to that?

David Mikics: Well his response really has to be found in other poems. Shelley really has two basic modes, and this poem is in neither of those modes. One of his modes is this very delicate, very lucid evocation of the ephemeral workings of the spirit as they pass over the human being. Particularly in his final poems. Shelley was dead about four years after he wrote this poem, just a month short of his 30th birthday. He died, he was youthful, he was a youthful poet. We have that sense of the spring like quality of youth, the vividness, the supple beauty of youth in those delicate lyrics. That’s one mode. But then the other mode was the transcendental challenge to everything we see and know around us. We think this is true, what is true. The stock exchange, the factory, the king, wealthy people, the miseries of the working class. These are not truths according to Shelley, these are shackles, these are a form of bondage and we have to burst through. How do we burst through? One way for example in the poem “Mont Blanc”, he says in Mont Blanc the mountain and the alps, the mountain hath a voice to repeal vast codes of fraud and woe”, which means attend this mountain, take in the sublime.


Curtis Fox: A very romantic view, get into nature.


David Mikics: Yeah, and then somehow the sublime seeing will fire through and devastate all of those codes of fraud and woe that rule us now. That’s the transcendent Shelley, and that is his answer. It wasn’t put into action, and some level of poor Shelley didn’t expect it to, at least not in his lifetime.


Curtis Fox: But it was taken up with a vengeance by American transcendentalists like Emerson and others.


David Mikics: Exactly. It’s interesting when I teach Shelley because I ask my classes, who do you prefer, Keats or Shelley? Not a single person ever says Shelley. I think that’s because Keats is thought of as the more humane, the more ordinary poet, the poet who has a feeling for us. Shelley it seems to them does not. Shelley always wants us to stretch beyond what we are. He wants to look beyond and he does look beyond. In that desolate scene at the end of “Ozymandias” we get that desolation, that bareness. In this case, there’s no transcendent answer, but we still have the same alien landscape that we do often in Shelley in his transcendent poems.


Curtis Fox: We should say a footnote. There’s an article that came out in The Guardian that I saw that came out last year saying that in Egypt, they found what they now think of as the statue of Ozymandies, so he survives even today.


David Mikics: Yeah, we’re still talking about him. I don’t know if that would have made him happy, but …


Curtis Fox: Yeah, and we’re still talking about Shelley. David, thank you so much.


David Mikics: Thank you.


Curtis Fox: You can read David Mikics’ poem guide to “Ozymandias” on our website. David’s books include Slow Reading in a Hurried Age, and Bellow’s People. We love getting emails with your comments and suggestions. Email us at [email protected] or write a review of the podcast in Apple Podcasts. Please link to the podcast on social media. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.









Shelley's famous poem “Ozymandias” is germane 200 years after its publication.

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