This week’s election reminded me of another epic showdown, from almost two hundred years ago. Only this battle wasn’t between warriors or statesmen, but two poets. And at stake? Not money or power, but the honor of having your work read by A.P. Literature students for evermore.
No doubt you know the tale of the confrontation between these two battle-weary wordsmiths, but allow me to provide some context nonetheless: it’s December 1817, and two friends—Percy Bysshe Shelley and Horace Smith—have an idea: they’d have a sonnet-writing competition! Both men would write a sonnet about the same subject and then see which one is better. (Hey, they didn’t have Angry Birds back then or even iCarly re-runs. What else could they do to pass the time?)
Shelley and Smith both decided to write about Rameses II (of course), the great Egyptian pharaoh, also known as Ozymandias. Or, more specifically, they both decided to write about a statue of this king, a statue that has deteriorated over the centuries to the point that only fragments remain—the head, the legs, and the pedestal.
Both poets even explore the same paradox: that Ozymanidas, the self-proclaimed “King of Kings,” commissioned a statue of himself to guarantee his immortality, but all that’s left is a broken statue. So if anything, he is immortalized, all right, but only as a symbol of mortality.
Both Shelley and Smith dutifully wrote their separate sonnets and submitted them to the same magazine, The Examiner. Shelley published his poem first, on January 11, 1818:
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 shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d 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.”
Three weeks later, on February 1, 1818, Horace Smith’s poem was published:
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!
Naught but the leg remaining to disclose
The sight of that forgotten Babylon.
We wonder, and some hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when through the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the wolf in chase,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What wonderful, but unrecorded, race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
Both pretty solid poems, actually. To me, the main difference is that Shelley includes a narrator (“I met a traveler…”), which reinforces the theme of story-telling: the narrator is telling us about a story he heard from someone else about this forgotten king (who is obviously not completely forgotten, since all these people are still talking about him).
However, although both poems were published about the same time, and they both take the same angle on the same historical figure, Shelley clearly came out the victor in their sonnet-brawl. Shelley’s poem, after all, is a widely-known staple of English literature… and pretty much no one has ever read or even heard of Horace Smith.
And why? Why did Horace Smith get the fuzzy end of the legacy-lollipop? A simple reason: Shelley had a better title.
Shelley entitled his poem, “Ozymandias.” And Smith entitled his, “On a Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below.”
A rose by any other name, indeed…