Friday, June 20, 2014

Percy Bysshe Shelley Meets Alanis Morissette Meets The Iraq Mess: Plenty To Look Upon And Despair

Every year in Creative Writing II (CW2), which we also called All Poetry All The Time, I assigned the
English Sonnet. To deafening groans and much wailing and gnashing of teeth. It was positively Biblical. We even developed together a Sonnet Map, which was a helpful worksheet showing the metric pattern, the rhyme scheme, the quatrain numerals, and blanks for each syllable so that students could write their poem on it with these reminders in place. Eventually, with peer and teacher conferences, my writers created sonnets that were read aloud and critiqued, and they survived it all. Many times, their sonnets were wonderful: some were traditional, some were funny, some were romantic, and others retold stories from literature, film, or even current events.

I love the form of the Sonnet, and the Elizabethan, or Shakespearean Sonnet in particular. Fourteen lines of iambic pentameter arranged in three quatrains (four-line sets). Each quatrain has a rhyme scheme. The final two lines, or couplet, rhyme with each other.

Some people don't realize that there is actually a pattern of development for the Sonnet as well. The first quatrain presents the problem; the second quatrain is supposed to develop or complicate the problem; the final quatrain restates or summarizes the initial problem with more intensity; finally, the couplet reaches a conclusion or solution. The Sonnet offers a chance for a poet to work Creatively Within Limits. For me, I find this liberating. For many others, it is a prison sentence.

Of course, a lot of Sonnets aren't perfect, and a lot are not the classic Shakespearean. I like all kinds, generally. One of my favourites is by Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was a pretty reprehensible individual in a great many ways. Like several of the Romantic Poets, he was a selfish jerk (I'm looking at you, Byron) whose conduct of his personal life was not as beautiful as his poetry.

This particular poem has been on my mind lately, thanks to the mess in Iraq.


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.'

If you read this poem with a sing-songy voice, making sure to start on an unstressed syllable, you can sustain it throughout. That's the iambic metric pattern. You'll have to force it on "boundless" and "Nothing," words for which the natural stress pattern is reversed. (Alanis Morissette does this all the time in her hit song "Uninvited"; it's okay.)

But, in spite of having to Follow Some Poetry Rules, Shelley has crafted a wonderful poem of imagery and wordsmithing. I don't like the device of the poem being the recitation of some unnamed tourist, and I often wonder, "Which antique land has native people who speak so gorgeously? I want to go there!" But beyond that, there is an awful lot to like about this poem.

It has that startling irony there in the last three lines, and that's where the tone of the poem changes, too. The traveler's story is a bit bitter, and his cadence is staccato and abrupt as he describes Ozymandias. Of course, when you read the inscription, you have to read it with that pomposity it demands, and it's the best part of the poem, really, "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:/Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" Then it drops dead with quietude, and you can almost hear the sighing of the winds over the desert, "boundless and bare." Ozymandias' kingdom is wrecked and gone, and we know that his hubris was the cause.

I'm not going to go into why "Ozymandias" comes to mind lately due to Current Events, or talk now about how heartbreaking (and frightening) it is to hear words like Mosul and Shiite and Tikrit again with some frequency.  Or even mention whose "shattered visage" it is that I see when I look at the face "half sunk" in the sands.



  1. This is one of my favorite poems. I enjoyed learning about it in high school English class, but then again I was destined to be an English major so I was primed to learn.

    [That being said, do you know about the online comic strip by D. C. Simpson called: Ozy and Millie? It is/was brilliant. More here: ]

  2. Your visage half buried reminded me of this statue/fountain, which lives in my little suburb.

    The poem is lovely and sad, and yes, so evocative of the current situation in Syria and Iraq. Ugh. I fear for us all sometimes.

  3. We had to write a sonnet in senior English. I'll try to dig it up & if it's as awful as I remember I'll post it - ha! I'm pretty sure that we didn't discuss the "pattern of development" within the poem, so mine won't have that structure.

    This one that you've posted is so completely appropriate the situation! It's like he could see into the future. Or more likely, that we never, ever learn. Sigh.

  4. I had that poem on my wall in my history classroom. I also used it for a speech class dialect analysis in college. The professor heard my recitation and told me I was from WV. Lol

  5. Moheckie--Was he wrong? LOL.

    It's a great poem for history classes; as we've seen, not many leaders have learned from their antecedents who have governed with cruel absolutism. Sadly, we've seen our own share of Ozymandiases (Ozymandii?) in our own short lifetimes.

    And yes, they are short lifetimes.

    Bug--I have quite a little collection of Sonnets myself. I even wrote one about cruel Ohio Winters. Oh, and one that is an ode to Rick's snoring! Quite a few staff members liked that one when it was published in the school literary mag.

    No, you're right. History does, as the saying so aptly observes, repeat itself. Because History is made up of human events, and we humans are stubborn and often oblivious, flawed creatures, it cannot be effectively helped. What a terrible, terrible thing.

    j@jj--Oh my word! What an incredible sculpture. I love it. Thank you for showing it to me. I'm keeping it now.

    Ally Bean--I had never had that particular comic cross my radar. Thank you for that nugget. This is another reason I love this space on My Interwebs. I get such great stuff for free.

  6. No, he wasn't wrong but I was devastated that it was so apparent.

  7. Ah! Have not studied iambic pentameter since high school, but it was in English class, not creative writing. It would have been so much fun to have worked with that in my creative writing class.

    When I was doing my masters, I got heavy into the octava real, and endecasílabos and the sinalefa which made it very confusing counting syllables because it legitimized 2 strong vowels in Spanish counting as a diphthong, going completely against all the rules for using accent marks. None of which prevented me from enjoying the poetry, lol.

    I had never read Ozymandias, or if I did it was so long ago and far away that I do not remember it. It is a haunting poem on its own, but also frightening to think how timely it is now.

  8. Ortizzle--Your masters program sounds so entirely thorough that I probably would have loved how Crazy it drove me. Sometimes, I miss using all my Smartypants vocabulary about English and writing and literary and dialectical analysis. Sigh. Oh, I really do. CAPS LOCK SIGH.

    I think nasty old Percy Bysshe successfully hit upon a timeless subject in Ozymandias. Cruel despots, as we all know, will always be with us in one form or another, and the fact that their absolutism will, in one way or another, lay waste their kingdoms is inevitable.

    Shelley's talent is enviable here because he really used the Sonnet's form to its full potential. The cadence of it is perfect for this story. Iambic pentameter closely mimics the usual rhythm of the human voice in conversation. (One of the reasons, purportedly, for Shakespeare's use of it--blank verse--in his plays.) But Shelley has his narrator, the traveler, change his voice a bit as his story moves on. It's subtle, but definitely there.

    I am always so happy to see you in comments. It lets me know you are not beating yourself up in summer sessions or taking on too much. I owe you an email.

    Moheckie--Oh, poor thing! I understand. Ever since Ann told me I have the "flat, nasally Ohio accent", I have never gotten over it.

  9. Stay tuned - I'm posting a sonnet attempt on Tuesday! :)


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