Sep 29 2011: An Ink And Wash Sketch On The Theme Of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ (Date Unknown)

The image above happened to be in a frame I bought to re-use a few years ago, but having removed the sketchbook page from its mount, somehow it seemed worth hanging onto: the dense cross-hatchings, sepia-toned wash and slightly awkward drawing of the central broken colossus (its pediment inscribed as in the poem’s text) all seem to work well. While it’s impossible to date the thing, I’d guess it’s from the 70s or 80s at the latest, mainly because the paper rather than the style of the illustration seems to date from that period. The image itself has a curiously anachronistic feel, a faintly 40s or 50s style. The handwriting used for the text of Shelley’s sonnet is slotted into the lower corners and very readable (click on the image above to enlarge it if this version is too small to see it properly). As anyone who did English in a school running on battered copies of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury will probably know, Shelley’s text – written in 1818 – runs as follows:

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.”

It’s a curious poem, almost all in reported speech, but as a comment on the hubris of power it has a certain ongoing resonance: the wholesale destruction of leaders’ statues across Eastern Europe after 1989 suggest one obvious contemporary parallel; the (hopefully) impending fall of the titans of the contemporary free markets a little closer to home might soon offer another, something it’s fairly safe to assume Shelley himself would have been agitating for were he still with us. Oddly, although I wrote one poem touching on this theme in the voice of Shelley earlier this year, reading ‘Ozymandias’ again this week makes me think more of another recent piece, Revelation, whose origins had nothing to do with Shelley, but which seems under the spell of having been re-reading much of his poetry regardless:

Will it be fear or relief that shows on your face
when your reflection hangs in the obsidian screen
of an ATM while all the networks finally collapse?
There may be flickering somewhere inside the machine
before all goes quiet, and its lights blink out.
You might stand for a moment or whole long hour
in the hope that something might stir,
that credit and balances might flow again like light
before realising, when the world goes on (as it always does)
that nothing’s changed. Taking down fences opens
but doesn’t destroy a field; breaking chains
of zeroes and ones leaves all they represent intact.
Remove the price-tags, strike down  records of profit and loss.
Every object and building will remain where it is.

Apart from anything else, it’s one in a series of Five Sonnets in the Aftermath and Anticipation of a Financial Meltdown and the sonnet itself is a form I’d not really written in before, simply because everything I did that began as one ended up mutating into something else for no particular reason except, well, that’s just how things go sometimes. It’s also on a similar theme: something powerful collapses but leaves minimal traces on the world it appears to dominate. So perhaps Shelley was behind this sequence even more than Zeropolis, the one self-consciously cast in his style. Maybe it’s also worth admitting that Shelley had never been a poet I’d much liked until fairly recently, having been force-fed things like ‘Ode to a Skylark’ in more than one deadening classroom and so been pretty much put off: but something about his approach in works like ‘Ozymandias’ and ‘The Revolt of Islam’ evidently strikes a fresh chord now, despite that.


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