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In my Intro to Poetry class, we spent some time last week on Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” giving it a close reading and looking for ways that the sonnet form provides some tension with the content of the poem. I tend to be somewhat conservative when teaching my poetry classes, in that I tend to do close readings only of poems that I’m really, really comfortable with: poems that I’ve written about critically and therefore spent hours or days dissecting, or poems that I have read closely in other classes (sometimes classes taught by someone else) or long discussions.
“Ozymandias” was a last-minute choice. I first encountered the poem in high school but never gave it a great deal of thought, and it’s been circling around the work I’ve done for a couple years now. It’s made an appearance in the assigned reading in my other classes but I never looked at it with students during our class period together. The context provided by our textbook always seemed sufficient for what I hoped students would gain from the poem.
But as I reviewed the assigned reading this time, I ditched my initial choice of a William Matthews poem for Shelley. I spent a little time with it the night before class and then another chunk of time with it the day of. But, of course, it wasn’t until I was in the classroom, in the middle of the conversation, that I was able to articulate the strategy that must have drawn me to the poem so keenly in the eleventh hour: the layering of voice. Take a look:
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.
Look at the distance between the speaker and the spoken. The speaker (1) meets a traveler (2), who says that an artist (3) built a statue that quotes Ozymandias (4 – it’s the only direct quote of the poem, but is attributable to both the artist and Ozymandias, which is another nice complexity). Of note: the speaker does not put the traveler’s words in quotes, suggesting that the made-ness of the iambic pentameter belongs to the speaker (and, for two lines, the artist/Ozymandias tag-team). It’s in this distance that the tension between form and content– the intense made-ness of the poem contrasted with the futility of making– is fully realized.
Sadly, I’ve since gone looking for this poem in places other than the textbook, and sometimes the traveler’s speech is put in quotes! Well, that sure changes my infatuation with this poem. Not much, but some.
I always feel a little silly writing discoveries like this in my blog. Someone else has had them before and articulated them more eloquently.