Sunday, September 1, 2013

Memorization Test: Ozymandias

There are times when I can't sleep at night because I feel so restless. A million thoughts fly around and rather than counting them I indulge myself in imagination. There are so many plans and ideas that I want to realize and I understand ever more fully that the ambition of man is without limit. The desire to leave our indelible mark on the world is not mine alone. It's illustrated by the millions of graffiti artists living among us. Some spray on walls, some write books, some paint canvases while others work to better the community, start a business or develop a family legacy. Somehow, some way, we want to be remembered, if even by a scratch on the wall.

Percy Bysshe Shelley touched on this concept in this week's memorization challenge, Ozymandias. What is an Ozymandias? Why, an Egyptian pharaoh named Ramesses of course. The poem carries a haunting message from the past, that even a man as powerful as Ramesses the Great fell victim to the steady, endless power of entropy. In the poem, the only evidence left of this great pharaoh are a few ruins in the desert, soon to be vanished by sweeping sands, and it's accompanying pedestal inscribed with his name.

I love the contrast at play here when we compare Ramesses the Great against Percy Shelley. Shelley was a Romantic poet who didn't even see his poems to any great success during his own life. He died at age 29. In school he faced daily group bullying sessions in which his offenders tore his books and his clothes. He had a crackly soprano voice as a child, easy to ridicule. He was also a science-driven mischievous kid and as a final prank to his school he blew up the tree in the yard with gunpowder. Good times! (Yeah try that one today...) When he left school he didn't have a friend to his name.

At Oxford, he eventually published a pamphlet called The Necessity of Atheism, which led to his expulsion and an eventual falling out with his father. Later he got in a tiff with one of his only friends from university, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, when he continually made advances on Shelley's wife. In all fairness, one could doubt Shelley was really in love with her. They reportedly married to save her from a suicidal depression and they eventually separated. Awkward story, Shelley later fell in love with some other girl and threatened suicide if she didn't return his affections, taking a leaf out of his first wife's book of romantic strategy.

He was an aristocrat that opposed the monarchy. His own circle of peers must have detested him. He lost custody of his kids when his first wife committed suicide.

Yet, he seemed to understand that with life's hills come valleys as well. In his poem Ode to the West Wind his insights in the line, "If winter comes, can Spring be far behind?"are inspired. Shelley, who (by a quick glance at his resumé) doesn't seem qualified to talk about optimism, teaches a lesson in perseverance.

What's more important, Shelley, notwithstanding empty successes during his difficult life, writes with a tragic wisdom. In Ozymandias, he exposes the impending effect time has on great accomplishments. At the same time, for me, the poem is a type of challenge. Where Ramesses the Great failed at creating a legacy that endured the test of time, perhaps we can succeed. Shelley's legacy, for example, was much stronger after his death than during his life.

When working toward our own personal legacies, I hope we don't build our houses on the sand. A giant's footsteps will vanish quickly in the sands, but the feet of the smallest bird will remain for years if it walks across wet cement.


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 remain, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"I am 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, 1818

This is a harder poem for the memorization challenge because there isn't an easy rhyme scheme or a musical meter. Good luck!