For those intimately familiar with Shelley’s Oxymandias, this might come off as cheeky parody of the sort one used to get in New York Magazine Competition, or the New Statesman, or even the Washington Post.
Actually, that’s not far off from the truth.
A little back-story. In 1809, the Drury Lane Theater burned down, a sad event for London theater goers. It took three years to rebuild the place and as re-opening day approached, the managers needed to get themselves talked about. They came up with a competition. Members of the public were solicited to write an oration to be read on the theater’s opening night. The sweetener was a prize was fifty pounds, an eye-catching sum in those days, and even today.
Horace Smith and his brother James thought it would be entertaining to write a few orations in the styles of various then popular writers. These they gathered into a volume called The Rejected Addresses, which proved to be the novelty hit of the season (and, not surprisingly, copied shamelessly in other cities.)
In a reversal of the normal pattern, Horace now went and got a day job, in effect going from successful Ink Stained Wretch to even more successful City Stockbroker (as well as financial adviser to Percy Bysshe Shelley). With day to day expenses covered, he continued to write, mostly poetry, and some novels, mostly forgotten. If he is remembered much at all, it is for the great Ozymandias challenge.
Ozymandias as we noted last time was the Greek name for Ramesses II, and referred to in the travel writings of the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus. Describing the ruins of Ramesseum, Diodorus notes the old statue and the explanatory engraving:
“The inscription upon it runs: ‘King of Kings am I, Osymandyas. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works.'”
Good stuff for the Romantic Age. In a friendly competition arranged by their common friend Leigh Hunt, Smith went head to head with Shelley, with Ozymandias being the topic. Each poet would write his heart out and the results would be published in The Examiner
Despair, indeed. Then again, you could argue that Smith was simply before his time. The last stanza (see below) – that would have gone down a whole lot better than Shelley in our Post Apocalyptic age of vampires and zombies and ghouls, oh my. Publishing and Hollywood seem to have an appetite for that sort of thing, certainly more than for sword and sandal epics; Smith would have been a natural.
Instead, he winds up – well, here. I suppose there are worse fates.
Below is Shelley’s entry, offered up on January 11, 1818. A hard act to follow, though Smith, ever game, gives it his best shot, published on February 1 of the same year. Read them both, and it should be clear why one is classic, the other a novelty piece.
I met a traveler 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.
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,—
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.