'OZYMANDIAS', 1818


               From the New York Public Library

              From the New York Public Library

Together with Keats and Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley is considered one of the great Romantic poets who lived in England - although they all died abroad - in the first half of the 19th century. In his essay A Defence of Poetry (1821), he set out a sophisticated vision of poetry in which not only the writer of beautiful verse is a poet but also "the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society." It is very much a document of the Romantic Age, but also contains radical political ideas current at the time. The well-known quotation below is an excellent example of his original and radical, ideas at such an early date (1812!). Quite unlike his apolitical contemporary Keats.

In addition to this essentially pacifist and anti-war affirmation, written in the age of Napoleon and the Battle of Trafalgar, Shelley  was a determined opponent of slavery in all forms.

Man has no right to kill his brother, it is no excuse that he does so in uniform. He only adds the infamy of servitude to the crime of murder.
— "Declaration of Rights" (1812)

 

The order and harmony which create beautiful poetry are also the basis of a good society. Poets, he writes in the concluding sentence of Defence "are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." His extraordinary lyrical gifts enabled him to combine the radical author and Romantic poet in a single person - and to write the prescient poem 'The Masque of Anarchy' written after the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, which influenced practitioners of non-violent protest from Gandhi to Bertrand Russell.

A poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds. His auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician.
— Shelley, A Defence of Poetry

Yet he is remembered most today for his lyrical poetry. In January 1818 he published a sonnet with the title 'Ozymandias', which has remained one of his best-known and most often quoted poems. It relates the story of a huge statue in the desert of an imagined Egyptian “king of kings”, which stands decaying, and uses the image to illustrate the follow of royal or imperial grandeur since in the end all empire are destined to crumble and be destroyed by time. As such, it is already a powerful poem.

But the story gains in power from a  better understanding of its contemporary background. First of all, it was a time when all the powerful European nations were building great national and patriotic museums and filling them with statues and other artefacts from Italy, Greece and Egypt in particular - from the British Museum in 1759, the Louvre in Paris in 1793 (as the result of Revolutionary fervour), the Prado in Madrid, opened to the public in 1819, and the Smithsonian in Washington a few years later in 1846. This acquired ancient grandeur provided lustre for the newly sought grandeur which the radical and anti-monarchy Shelley may have wished to criticise in this oblique way.

   Torso of Rameses II, Ozymandias, British Museum

  Torso of Rameses II, Ozymandias, British Museum

Second, specifically, the statue of “Ozymandias” seems to have been inspired by the arrival in London of a statue of the Egyptian pharaoh Rameses II dating from over a thousand years before Christ. It was acquired just before he wrote the poem by the British Museum. The Pharaoh had in fact been known to the Greeks as Ozymandias, which the learned and well-read Shelley certainly knew. Shelley, who knew Rome and its history well although the did to visit the city during his stay in Italy, may have known that the obelisk placed on the fountain in front of the Pantheon in Rome in 1711 was one of those attributed to Rameses (the Parisian one in Place de la Concorde arrived after Shelley's death). It gives an extra resonance to the poem, because while the Pantheon itself is nearly 2,000 years old and serves as a reminder of Rome’s architectural innovation in its use of concrete and will last longer than Ozymandias’ statue, there is always the presence of an obelisk thirteen hundred years older to give a sense of historical perspective.

Added to the above elements is the radical undertone, which emphasises how all power and all tyranny will eventually be destroyed by time, and by revolution as had happened in France just thirty years before.

           The obelisk of Rameses II at the Pantheon

          The obelisk of Rameses II at the Pantheon

There is also a further ironic edge to the poem, since we know that four years later the thirty-year-old poet died in storm at sea just off the coast of Italy. His gravestone bears the words “Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.” from Shakespeare's Tempest. They are appropriate both for the manner of his death, in a tempest, and for the idea of fading as expressed in Ozymandias.