Posts Tagged ‘Ozymandias’

On feeling oppressed by time…

October 31, 2020

I have realised it’s an aspect of growing older: the further I get in life’s journey, the more oppressed I feel by the very idea of time. At one level, it’s a personal thing. I look back to my early life and my parents, and realise how long ago all those memories are now; when I can say it’s half a century since I did my O levels, that feels overwhelming in a way. I look back to my own children’s early lives – they’re grown, now – and that feels an age away, looking at photographs and thinking, ‘thirty years ago?’…

Literature is interesting (though not particularly helpful) at this point in my reflections. Think of Shelley’s Ozymandias, and how much time has gone by between the making of the statue, now ruined, and the visit of the traveller who brings back the account of what he has seen. Even the situation, in the sands of the desert, feeds into our notions of time measured in the sands of an hourglass, remorselessly slipping away.

Ursula Le Guin is very interesting in the way she presents the pain of the passage of time. In the Hainish stories and science fiction novels, faster-than-light travel and communication is possible, and the officials of the Ekumen, the collective of known worlds peopled by human-like creatures that are sprinkled across the universe, often travel between worlds on journeys that take centuries in real time. This means that a person leaves their world knowing that even if they ever do return to it, their return will be centuries later, and everyone and everything that is familiar to them about home, will no longer exist, or will be radically changed. Ivan Yefremov, in A for Andromeda, takes us a thousand years into the future, to a world where communism and the Soviet way of life rules the planet, has created a utopia for humanity and abolished religion completely, and yet has his characters contemplating similar themes.

Socrates said that the unconsidered life is not worth living, and anyone who spends time reflecting on their life will surely at some time experience how hard it is being aware of both the enormity of the universe in time and space, and the brevity of their own personal existence. For some, religious or spiritual beliefs offer solace; for others, not.

We can look back over centuries, millennia even, of literature, and see same these preoccupations voiced: Horace’s poignant ode to his friend Postumus (even his name evokes mortality!), reflections on life and death in Chaucer, Shakespeare (Hamlet’s famous soliloquy!), Tolstoy… nothing has changed. And I have admired the way that somehow Tolstoy managed to capture the sense of the broad sweep of history and the individual’s place within it, in War and Peace. But, given that better minds than mine have wrestled with time over so much time in the past, I’m not sure I will ever resolve anything… What was one our present becomes our past, the past; becomes history, and then we are part of it. As an Arab sage once said, ‘One day you will only be a story. Make sure that yours is a good one.’

Horace Smith: Ozymandias

September 28, 2020

Dedicated to all my former sixth form students of English Literature.

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 site of this forgotten Babylon.

We wonder,—and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

I was astonished recently when something sent me to the wikipedia article on Ozymandias, and I learned that there was another version of the poem, for Shelley and Horace Smith had had a friendly competition to write a poem on the subject. Shelley’s survives and is well-known; this student and teacher of English Lit for half a century had not heard of Smith’s poem. I refer you to the excellent article for texts of both poems side-by-side and decent contextual background, too. I’m not going to write a detailed crit of Smith’s effort: you can do that for yourself. I just wanted to share the discovery.

The ‘leg’ somehow wrecks the poem for me – twice. It’s the sound of the word, its shortness coupled with the short, open vowel that just screams incongruity with the subject-matter.

Alliteration (sandy silence – the sibilants suggesting sand shifting in the desert wind, just as in the closing lines of Shelley’s poem) and assonance (the long vowel sounds at the end of the first three lines, the mournful ‘o’) create atmosphere and romantic sensation in Smith’s poem, just as Shelley does. But, I don’t think it’s just the familiarity of Shelley’s poem that makes it so much better: I do think he does so much more with all the poetic devices he brings in to play.

The sestet redeems Smith’s poem, though, by bringing in a perspective that Shelley doesn’t: the fact that this oblivion may affect the world and time to which we belong. The image of a huge, forgotten fragment of London creates a shock for the contemporary reader, striking a chord like that much later moment towards the end of Planet of the Apes. The alliteration of the ‘w’ sounds, repetition of ‘wonder’, use of the antiquated and biblical ‘wilderness’ create an atmosphere of desolation; London in the past tense ‘stood’, and the sense of abandonment conjured up by the ‘wolf’ are rather effective, I find. Smith has a ‘Hunter’ rather than Shelley’s ‘traveller’ but this character is equally effective, perhaps more so in the sense of a more primitive being, not understanding what he finds. And ‘annihilated’ works well in that final line, too.

Here’s a piece I wrote earlier.

On annihilation

February 1, 2020

A recent death in the family has inevitably had me reflecting on endings, disappearances, and what happens next. And while I have a faith and a spiritual life of sorts, I cannot think that there will be anything to come hereafter, in which I may have any connection to, knowledge or comprehension of this life which I have been enjoying for so long.

Many writers have imagined annihilation on a global scale, especially since 1945 and the first use of nuclear weapons. Think Walter Miller’s superb A Canticle For Leibowitz. Others have imagined environmental disaster, or disease on a pandemic scale. Mary Shelley’s The Last Man is my favourite example here. But these writers envisage some survivor(s), rather than the complete disappearance of humanity. Rarely have writers contemplated or explored the idea of annihilation itself.

81m4LsvGXVL._AC_UL320_ML3_    71DcF-BqxUL._AC_UY218_ML3_    There are two literary works – very different from each other – which have chimed in with my thoughts. One is Eugene Ionesco’s masterpiece Le Roi Se Meurt (The King Dies) which I have mentioned a number of times. The king has to die, as must we all, and his time has come, yet he cannot accept the inevitable: he rages against it, even as his kingdom, in pathetic fallacy, disintegrates around him. His two queens assist him: the younger and more beautiful young one urging him to resist, supporting his denial (of the obvious) while the elder strives to get her husband to accept the inevitable. Death cannot be resisted. Amid his mental struggles, the king wants someone to teach him how to die, and is told – in a bleak sentence which has stayed with me for half a century, “Everyone is the first person to die!” For me, there is the profundity of great wisdom and great art in that bald sentence, so terrible when fully contemplated. And in this play, no afterlife is on offer.

The second text which spoke to me is a science fiction novel from the 1940s, Olaf Stapledon’s neglected Last And First Men. It’s a difficult, painful and strangely dull read at times, as well as an absolutely astonishing work of the imagination: Stapledon takes us on a whirlwind imagined history of humanity through (I think) eight very different incarnations of the human species over a period of several billion years, and its existence on several of our solar system’s planets. And as the years whizz by on the clocks of the Time Traveller’s craft in HG Wells’ novel up until the moment of the death of the sun, Stapledon’s journey takes us just as far into the future, but what shocks most is how quickly our own time, the people, places, countries and world we know are left behind in the mists of time. Gone and forgotten forever are all the marvels of our era, the Bachs and the Shakespeares and the Einsteins, gone are the cathedrals and the wonders of the world, ground to dust over millennia by time and geology: how long will the slightest traces of any of our world and our (feeble) achievements be recognisable? Shelley’s Ozymandias comes to mind: ‘Look on my works, ye might, and despair.’

The sense of annihilation is the total vanishing, the utter evanescence of anything connected with us on the scale of the universe, our utter insignificance. And when I contemplate that on an individual or personal level, my mind fails me, quite honestly. For how long will anyone have a memory of me, or my deeds? So then, I’m faced with the question: what is the point? And faced with that insignificance, all I can imagine is to try and live well and care for those close to me and dear to me, to enjoy myself, and do good where I can for as long as I’m able. I came across an old Arab proverb many years ago: “One day, you will only be a story: make sure yours is a good one.” That speaks to my condition.

Shelley: Ozymandias

June 17, 2019

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”.

I’ve always loved this poem. It says so much, as well as demonstrating a great deal of what poetry is especially good at. And you cannot fully grasp all of it without hearing the poem, so if necessary, read it aloud…

It’s a Petrarchan sonnet, fourteen lines divided into an octave and sestet, though the rhymes are not perfect and the rhyme-scheme is not self-contained within octave and sestet. Look carefully and you will see what I mean. The emphasis shifts from the statue itself in the octave, to the inscription and then reflections on it, in the sestet.

Now see how the poet distances himself from everything: he meets a traveller, so everything is received secondhand rather than personally encountered. What does traveller suggest, nowadays? And back in the early nineteenth century? What is an antique land – why has the poet chosen that word? The speaker reports the traveller’s words. Only the statue’s legs are still upright. Look at vast. How big is vast? These legs of stone | stand in the desert: those two alliterative monosyllables gain considerable power and effect from the enjambment. The caesura slow things down further. There’s further emphasis through another alliteration: sand | Half sunk. Consider shattered – listen to the sound: what is the effect? Is it onomatopoeia?

The traveller now describes the features that can be seen on what’s left of the face – a cruel ruler, it seems: cold command is quite explicit, with the hard ‘c’ sounds and the ‘o’ both long and short; alliteration abounds in the poem but never feels contrived, I suggest. The passions carved into the face are still familiar today, it is suggested; stamped hints both at the features of the face and the idea of power repressing it subject people. Economical use of language, and again the onomatopoeia in the word adds to the effect…

Words on the pedestal are still legible – note the alliteration of the letter ‘p’, quite subtle but pulling the line together. Do you know who Ozymandias was? Nor do I, though we could search for his name and get information. King of Kings, allegedly. The next line is sheer beauty, through the emptiness of the boast and the double meaning which our king will never have been aware of. Despair, at the power of what he achieved, or the ruin to which he and they have been reduced by time. The next half line falls leadenly, three two-syllabled words followed by the full stop and caesura: how powerful is that? Where are all these works to have driven the viewer to despair?

The concluding two and a half lines are truly magical and have to be heard to enjoy the full effect, particularly through the repeated use of long vowels, which magnify the lapse of time and its destructive power for me. What about colossal? How large is that? Is it bigger than vast, which we had earlier? The alliteration of boundless and bare enhances the effect, and then in the final line we have lone and level, and sands stretch, and I can’t help feeling too that all the sibilant ‘s’ sounds throughout the poem are meant to suggest all the sand…

An enormous amount can be crammed into a very short space in a good poem, where the words and the sounds are so carefully chosen to contribute their part to the overall effect. You might try to imagine how long a piece of prose might be needed to achieve anywhere near the same effect or same level of description. And that’s before you reflect on what the poet has sought to have his readers think about: time, eternity, erasing human vanity and achievement, our smallness in the face of the vastness of the universe. If you didn’t read the poem aloud, do it now: use the punctuation to help you know where to pause, because the enjambments in the poem are also important in maintaining the flow of the verse as you read it, and creating and sustaining a reflective tone throughout. Good, isn’t it?

On perspectives (2)

July 5, 2017

Isidore of Seville wrote what is generally acknowledge to have been the world’s first encyclopaedia in the seventh century CE; he is now the patron saint of the internet (!). Athanasius Kircher, in the seventeenth century, may have been the last human to have known everything that was known; today we have the web, billions of pages of… what? I’ve never forgotten a librarian friend describing the internet as an enormous library, with all the books thrown in a heap on the floor.

It’s clearly an aspect of growing older, but I do find myself thinking that there isn’t enough time to read all the things I want to read, to understand all the stuff I want to understand, to visit all the places I want to visit: I find myself mentally deferring things until my next existence…

So, how does one cope with the vastness of the world and its possibilities? The easy way is gradually to retreat into one’s own personal bubble, a relatively narrow, restricted world, and stay in it. It’s the Brexit world to me, for want of a better image. And not only is this an easy choice, it’s also often an unconscious choice. Or one can try to engage with the world in some of its vastness, and attempt to comprehend it in various ways: I read about it, talk to people about it, travel and read about the travels of others.

What sense can one person make of the world? Here one runs into the dangers of moral relativism: let’s try and be as open-minded as possible, accepting that there are very different societies with very different behaviours, morals, customs which we are not part of, therefore let’s not be judgemental… and suddenly we may find ourselves silently condoning genital mutilation or stoning people to death for adultery and other such enormities. By what right and criteria do we allow ourselves then to pass judgements on, to evaluate others’ behaviours? Somewhere way back in my studies of renaissance French literature I remember an adage from someone, which I found wise then and still do now: anything which brings pleasure and does no harm to others, should be allowed. And yet the terms are somewhat elusive, even here… At least this takes us beyond the narrowness of ‘what I like’ and ‘what I understand’.

I do find the world a very challenging place; I know it’s the only place I have to live, though there have been times when I’ve fantasised about moving to the depths of Siberia or somewhere else where I might avoid the rest of the species. I’m astonished at some of the amazing things we have done – such as the exploration of the world and outer space, and travelling to the moon – and some of the geniuses that have emerged from humanity – Bach and Shakespeare to mention my favourite examples – but in my darker moments I do feel that we really are not a very intelligent species, and perhaps do not deserve to survive. Then, when I remember a book like Olaf Stapledon‘s brilliant Last and First Men, which takes humanity several billion years into the future, I sorrow at the vanishing of our achievements in the mists of time, a true Ozymandias moment.

I think I like challenges (moderate ones, at least), and I do like learning new things. The older I get, the less I realise I really know, and I suspect that this is a function of age. The world, and the understanding of it, is a quest that has to go on forever, for me personally at least.

My travels: W for the Wolf’s Lair

June 6, 2017

Wolfsschanze, or the Wolf’s Lair lies deep in the forests of northeastern Poland; before 1945 it lay in East Prussia, and was Hitler’s Eastern HQ, from which he directed his insane attempt to conquer the Soviet Union, and where he lived from 1942-44. It’s also the place where the unsuccessful assassination attempt of July 1944 took place.

In communist times, it was on the tourist trail after a fashion: you could park your car, and go and wander around the ruins, clamber all over them, risk your neck in collapsing tunnels – once my sisters and I had seen ‘Achtung! Minen!’ (yes, it really said that) painted on a wall, we got out pretty quickly – and generally pose for photos where you liked. It was quite a rambling site, quite open, and there wasn’t a great deal of information around, no clues as to what any particular wrecked chunk of concrete had been used for.

Last year I took myself there again, for a proper look, 45 years after that first visit. It’s a serious tourist attraction now: entrance and parking fee with proper tickets, guides, leaflets and a souvenir shop, and tourist buses from many countries, especially Germany. There’s a bar and restaurant, and a trail around the ruins that you’re expected to stick to. There’s a lot more information, now: you know which bunker was whose, where the assassination attempt took place (a modest memorial to the conspirators who gave their lives marks the spot) and you get a real sense of the vastness of the place. The bunkers have ten metre-thick reinforced concrete roofs – you have to see this to get your mind round the colossal waste of resources involved; apparently the Nazis used an entire trainload of high explosives when they attempted to destroy the complex before the advancing Russians got there. They failed. And the thing I found most strange, the whole area gradually has been taken over by forest and woodland, creepers and vegetation, almost a jungle; the concrete is dripping with damp and mineral stalactites leaching out of the concrete, covered with greenery; visible metal has almost rusted away…

The place is awesome in the sense of huge, and utterly bonkers: such a ridiculous waste of space and materials; by the time it’s a century old, I wonder if anything discernible will be left. Certainly a sort of Ozymandias moment here.

Jonathan Tucker: The Silk Road Art and History

December 9, 2015

31GFEU8hIDL._AA160_If you have read may of my posts about travel writing on this blog, you will know that I’m fascinated by the Silk Road, that collection of routes (for there was no single route, like the M1) which linked East and West from the times of Alexander the Great onwards, allowing people to trade, and to exchange ideas and knowledge. This book is clearly a labour of love: it is helpfully illustrated by many maps of all the different routes that are known, and liberally illustrated with hundreds of wonderful photos of people, places, artefacts and treasures.

The fact that the routes have existed for over two thousand years does put our own world, with its empires and trade routes into a different perspective: how long will what we have invented or created endure? Equally, although these two millennia were never times of unalloyed peace and neighbourliness, it is fair to observe that Christians, Muslims and Buddhists managed to co-exist, to be interested in each other, to preserve contact, to trade, and to learn from one another. Maybe that was easier in a world full of unknowns and uncertainties – after all, travellers never knew whether they would reach their destination…

I marvelled at the vastness of the spaces along the routes, in lands where there was room for unwanted and no longer used buildings just to be left to decay and gradually disappear naturally, crumbling in peace after the people had long gone. They continue to crumble: it is also interesting to realise how the dryness of the desert treat the remains of human settlements, compared with the damp, humid and temperate lands we inhabit: out there, there are reamins of wooden buildings erected over a thousand years ago: shades of Ozymandias, I felt…

I was saddened to think how many of the places described and illustrated are nowadays inaccessible because of ongoing conflicts, and also realised how much had been destroyed by fanatics and fundamentalists since the book was written – the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the Roman remains of the city of Palmyra in Syria.

This is probably the book to have on the history and culture of the Silk Roads, as a companion to any other reading on the subject.

On time…

March 30, 2015

Reading a fair bit of science fiction lately shunted me onto the track of thinking about writers and time – that think which is always in limited supply and of which we never have enough. We are prisoners of it, shaped by it: in the end it defeats us, and all our works: Shelley’s Ozymandias is a marvellous reflection on this.

Along with all the other constantly repeated themes in fiction, drama and poetry, writers have explored our relationship with time. We want to escape time and can’t, so we sit and waste more of it by sitting down and reading books. We freeze things in time, capturing them with words or with light. Does any of this help?

Back in Roman times, the poet Horace wrote to his friend Postumus (Eheu, fugaces, Postume, Postume/ labuntur anni…) about the years slipping by and our inability to slow the passage of the years, with old old age to look forward to; Shakespeare‘s Richard II reflects, in his prison cell, awaiting his death, that he wasted time, and now time wastes him; Andrew Marvell imagines giving time a run for its money (Had we but world enough and Time/ This coyness, lady, were no crime/ ) in the famous To His Coy Mistris, whilst recognising that one will eventually be too old to enjoy love-making.

Proust writes of recapturing the essence of the past with that famous madeleine moment, and I am sure we have all had our equivalent experiences: I have often found myself astonished at the amount of detail from my past that my brain is capable of storing, as some long-forgotten nugget floats to the surface of my consciousness, triggered by I know not what.

Wells, in The Time Machine, imagines the device I’m sure everyone has fantasised about being able to play with: when would you go back to? and looks forward eight hundred thousand years, to the twilight of the human race, divided into the Eloi and the Morlocks, the impotent masters and the powerful serfs;

Once we start thinking about time, we drift into our own, individual, relative insignificance in the wider scheme of things; unless we are particularly famous or notorious, memory of us is likely to fade within a couple of generations at most… which is perhaps why Arthur C Clarke‘s The City and The Stars is so appealing: a thousand million years in the future, a computer runs the City, and individuals are born and reborn every million years or so, conjured up from the City’s memory banks. Would we feel comforted in the face of eternity, with such prospects? On the other hand, in his masterful Last and First Men, Olaf Stapledon imagined two billion years of future human history, and the speed with which everything you and I were familiar with from our puny ten thousand years or so of current history vanished into oblivion was quite shocking.

And then there are visions of eternity, such as that which develops in the mind of Stephen Dedalus in Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: tormented by the fears of Hell because he has ‘sinned’, he hears the description of eternity as applied to his own damnation, using the familiar trope of the grains of sand on the seashore…

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