King of Kings: Shelley’s Best-Known Poem

From The Economist, “The Real Ozymandias,” a tremendous must-read:

The origins of “Ozymandias” were humble: a playful contest with a friend, Horace Smith, a jolly London poet-stockbroker, who was staying with Shelley at Marlow. A mutual friend, Leigh Hunt, the young editor of the radical Examiner magazine, liked to organise sonnet competitions; 15 minutes was the standard time allowed. (The next February Hunt set one up between Shelley, John Keats and himself. The topic was “The Nile”; the two poets dashed off theirs in style, while Hunt laboured on his until two in the morning.) Shelley’s poem and Smith’s were published in short succession in the Examiner the next year, Smith modestly regretting their proximity. Indeed, though his effort got better towards the end, it was hard to get straight-faced past the first two lines:

In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg…

The Muse had plainly dawdled. Shelley’s start was rocky, too. He got hung up first on “pedestal”, a tricky word to fit into a metre (“There stands by Nile a lone single pedestal”). Then he was bothered by the material the trunkless legs were made of (“marble/grey/brown”). A “sultry mist” crept in, distracting him for a while. Then he attributed a “gathered frown” to one of the legs. But oddly, on the recto of the page (Shelley having typically started off on the verso), the whole thing is written out in fair copy, as if it has effortlessly formed in his head.

Probably it had. Much ink has been spilled discussing exactly where Shelley’s image, and the vaunting proclamation, came from, but possible sources were not far to seek. The most likely was Diodorus Siculus in his “Library of History”, which Shelley was reading around that time. Diodorus, writing in the first century BC, relayed Hecataeus’s description of the black-stone statue when it was standing complete in its temple in Thebes 300 years before. It was, said Hecataeus, the largest statue in Egypt; its foot alone was “more than seven cubits”, or ten and a half feet long. Diodorus, who had never seen it, straightforwardly called it “Ozymandias”, recorded the proclamation on the pedestal and said that this funerary temple “seems to exceed all others not only in the vast scale of its expense, but also in the genius of its builders.” It was not, however, ruined: the black stone contained “not a crack, not a flaw” in his day.


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