Poetry of the City with Percy Bysshe Shelley
In a five-part series of blog posts, Rigoberto González explores poetry of the city: “As the bittersweet symbol of order and chaos, progress and decay, community and overcrowding, the city is both beacon and demon—a landscape of possibility where dreams are born and where dreams transform, or die. The poems in this series offer a range of poetic representations of the city and civilization, and how over the centuries this man-made space continues to mirror human joy and anxiety. These poems help us understand the powers and weaknesses of the city (and within ourselves), and how the dance between people and the places they inhabit produces the greatest archive of memory, history, and story.”
This week Rigoberto González looks at a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822).
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.”—
—Percy Bysshe Shelley
Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, W. W. Norton, 2002
Shelley wrote this poem after reading an article in the newspaper about the British Museum’s acquisition of pieces of a statue representing Ramesses II, ruler of Egypt from 1279-1213 BC. The article appeared in 1817, but the artifact did not arrive until 1821. That didn’t stop Shelley from writing this sonnet in 1818, before he had even seen the statue, so impressed he was by the idea that the image of a once-great king had been reduced to a ruin. The poem is also one of the earliest examples of a poem that references archaeology. The title of the sonnet comes from the Greek name for Ramesses II.
The unconventional rhyme scheme (ababacdcedefef) gestures toward an Italian sonnet, but stands on its own individual pillar—a kind of signal to the reader that the unique structure will mirror the solitary figure of the poem. The decline and demise of said figure stand as a commentary about the fleeting nature of power, the mortality of man (no matter his earthly position and acquired strength), and his hubris, which, considered from a distance, is quite laughable and pitiful, particularly with the arrival of the lines: “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! / Nothing beside remains.”
Since such a “King of Kings” becomes his kingdom, the end of his rule gestures toward the end of an era, a dynasty, or a civilization. Nothing great will last. Ozymandias serves as a cautionary tale against assuming such arrogance and vanity, and against surrendering to such a self-proclaimed authority. Eventually, everything succumbs to the ravages of time, is worn down to dust, and fades into the horizon. The world’s history is full of these cautionary tales of great civilizations and cities falling or losing their greatness, from the ancient Greek, Roman, and Mesoamerican empires, to more contemporary American examples such as Detroit, Cleveland, and New Orleans—each “colossal Wreck, boundless and bare” holds on to its histories and stories as vestiges and artifacts, and as long as inhabitants remain or return, so will the possibility of rebuilding and re-imagining. Without people, a city greets certain death.
It is no accident that Shelley’s imagination was engaging these questions since his own life was coming to a close. He died four years after writing this poem, a year after the arrival of Ramesses II to Britain. The questions loom heavily over this sonnet: And how will you be remembered, oh king, oh poet, oh kingdom, oh city, oh poem?
This blog post is based on a talk that Gonzalez gave at Poets House in the (6 x 5 = 30) series, where six poets each provided close readings of five seminal poems as part of Poets House’s 30th Anniversary season.
Rigoberto González is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Unpeopled Eden, which won the Lambda Literary Award and the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets. His ten books of prose include two bilingual children’s books, the three young adult novels in the Mariposa Club series, the novel Crossing Vines, the story collection Men Without Bliss, and three books of nonfiction, including Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa, which received the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. He also edited Camino del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Writing and Alurista’s new and selected volume Xicano Duende: A Select Anthology. Currently, he is professor of English at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey, and the inaugural Stan Rubin Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the Rainier Writing Workshop. In 2015, he received the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Publishing Triangle. As of 2016, he serves as critic-at-large with the L.A. Times.