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OpenLearn Live: 1st February 2016

Updated Monday, 1st February 2016

Who was the real Ozymandias?

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Today's Post

Although today is  - allegedly - National Sickie Day, OpenLearn Live is legitimately not at our post because we're on leave. But we can't face the prospect of a week with an incomplete set of start-up segments, so we're just popping in to start a week of...

The people in the poem: Ozymandias

This week, we're going to be starting each day with the story of some people who have been the subject of familiar poems, and we're kicking off with Ozymandias.

The bust of Rameses II in the British Museum Creative commons image Icon Mujtaba Chohan under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license

Ozyamandias was remembered in not one, but two, poems of 1818 - in a Huey Lewis/Frankie Goes To Hollywood/Jennifer Rush Power Of Love style, poems by both Horace Smith and Percy Shelley shared a name. (In part, this was because Shelley was racing to complete his work in competition with Smith). Shelley's published first; and is much better known:

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.”

Smith's poem is identical in theme:

IN Egypt's sandy silence, all alone, 
      Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws 
      The only shadow that the Desart 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,— 
      Nought 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.

Smith might have hobbled his chances of winning the Ozymandias-off by originally titling his work On A Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below.

Why were the two poets engaged in recording the boast of a giant stone leg? At the time they were writing, the British Museum had just "acquired" the head of a statue of Rameses II - an Egyptian pharoah known by more names than Snoop Dogg - Ramses, Rameses  Userma’atre’setepenre (Keeper of Harmony and Balance, Strong in Right, Elect of Ra),  Ramesses the Great and - of course - Ozymandias. The third Pharoah of the 19th Dynasty, he nearly died early on his reign in the battle of Kadesh. In power between 1279 and 1213 BCE, his lived to be 96; most of his subjects couldn't remember a time before him and worried upon his death that it marked the end of Egypt and, perhaps, the world. That would have been a shame, as he'd spent a lot of time and effort rebuilding and remaking Egypt as a strong, successful nation.

Both poems mock Ozymandias' claims to have built his own memorial - the inscription lifted not from the statue "acquired" by the Museum, but from Greek historian Diodorus Siculus. Smith and Shelley are unfair, though, as although time has moved on, Rameses is remembered by much more than a few chunks of stone torn from their context; his name is recorded in some form at nearly every site and his deeds echo today. Not least in the signing of every peace treaty to end a war. The United Nations General Assembly displays a copy of the Egyptian-Hittite treaty, the first document of its type to describe how victors and vanquished would exist after conflict.

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