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Thursday, December 8, 2011


(Percy Bysshe Shelly in Italy writing Prometheus Unbound,
a “closet drama” meant to be read out loud rather than
performed on stage, by Joseph Severn, 1793-1879, English

Sometimes poets direct their work to their colleagues. They conduct conversations in verse with other poets, like their responses to Christopher Marlowe’s passionate shepherd. And they compete with each other, writing poems about the same theme, like Leigh Hunt’s and John Keats’s sonnets about a grasshopper and a cricket, and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s and Horace Smith’s sonnets below about an ancient tyrant.

Both of today’s sonnets look at the fate of Ozymandias, believed to be Ramesses II of Egypt (1303-1213 B. C.), a pharaoh who built giant monuments, palaces, and temples in his own honor. A Greek historian of the first century B. C., Diodorus Siculus, recorded that the inscription on the base of one of Ramesses’ monuments read: “King of Kings am I, Ozymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works.”

Both of these sonnets are composed in a variation of the Petrarchan form.

The first sonnet is by Horace Smith (1779-1849). In the octave, he describes the remains of a giant statue of a tyrant in a destroyed city of ancient Egypt. In the sestet, he imagines a time in the future when the city of London is similarly annihilated.


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 chase,
He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

The second sonnet is by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), another Romantic poet like Wordsworth, Keats, Coleridge, and John Clare. It is by far the more famous version.


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 fed¹:
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.

¹ the hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed – the mocking hand of the sculptor, and the tyrant’s heart that fed on his vanity

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