“Ozymandias”: Who wore it better?



Is this Ozymandias? And would he have liked the name change? (Photo: BabelStone)

Last month we wrote about the birth of the Mary Shelley‘s novel Frankenstein: “The story was born on the shores of Lake Geneva in the summer of 1816, the coldest summer on record. The 18-year-old Mary Godwin had eloped with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘at that time, more of an incorrigible trouble-maker than a poet…the nineteenth-century equivalent of a rock star.’ She had been disowned by her family and was still haunted by the death of her infant first child. One stormy night, the couple huddled in a villa with the poet Lord Byron and a few others. Their discussion is fueled by the era’s cutting-edge discussions of evolution, materialism, electricity, and the animating principle of life. They cited Coleridge and talk about their dreams. Finally, they devise a contest to create a ghost story during their Swiss sojourn.”

But wait! It’s not over! Percy Shelley and Lord Byron obviously lost their silly contest to a teenager. But Percy, at least, hadn’t had enough. Two years laters – two hundred years ago this very month! – he pulled the same stunt again. This time he challenged another friend, Horace Smith (1779–1849) to a poetic duel. Shelley had a head start: he had been working on a poem since 1817, when the British Museum announced its acquisition of a large chunk of a statue of Rameses II from the thirteenth century B.C. The statue was late, and so was the poem, apparently. Smith published his Petrarchan sonnet a few weeks after Shelley’s published his in The Examiner. There are obvious differences: one ends on a science fiction-y note in London, the other stays put with Rameses in Egypt.

Who wore it better? You decide.




Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias”

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.


Horace Smith’s “Ozymandias”

Not so bad yourself, Ace-man!

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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5 Responses to ““Ozymandias”: Who wore it better?”

  1. William Cook Says:

    Was Mary sixteen or eighteen years old?

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Corrected! Thanks!

  3. George Says:

    Iris Origo gives another example of a competition in the chapter “Pisa-Montenero” of The Last Attachment. A tenor of the Pisa opera had asked that Byron and Shelley should each write a song for him. They chose an Indian air. “The results pf these poetic efforts were, [Trelawny] states, Shelley’s exquisite lyric “I arise from dreams of thee’, and perhaps the worst, as well of the most absurd, of Byron’s many bad poems…”

    I would swear that Guy Davenport wrote an essay about the composition of “Ozymandias”, but I can’t at the moment find the volume that has it.

  4. George Says:

    Hidden in plain sight: the essay is “Ozymandias”, collected in The Geography of the Imagination.

  5. FiveOfDecember Says:

    ” Il genio di Alan Moore si manifesta anche qui, quando non lascia trasparire un giudizio morale a proposito del piano di Ozymandias, ma neanche ci fa sapere se poi l’umanità riuscirà a trovare la pace. Mi piace pensare che però ci abbia lasciato qualche indizio in un’altra poesia di un poeta inglese del romanticismo, questa volta Shelley, che guarda caso, si intitola proprio Ozymandias e, ancora più sorprendentemente, è anch’essa utilizzata per intitolare uno dei capitoli, l’undicesimo, intitolato “Guardate alle mie opere, o potenti…”. Ma ora lascio a voi la lettura delle ultime due terzine e le conclusioni… “And on the pedestal these words appear:“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!