Friday, 8 January 2021

This week’s Poetry Friday host is Sylvia Vardell. Hooray! It’s Sylvia’s annual preview of upcoming poetry books for children! Check out the list, plus this week’s PF links, at Poetry For Children.

Do you remember the first time you read Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias”? I do.

The compelling, mysterious “a friend of a friend” style opening drew me into the poem. Strong visual images made me feel like I was the one standing in an empty desert, staring down at the half-buried face of a forgotten ruler.

The threatening inscription contrasted with the traveller’s observation that the “colossal wreck” was surrounded by emptiness. Reading this poem as a teen, I understood the meaning of irony.

Given the terrible events at the Capitol building this week, I am think of that “wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,” and the barrenness behind it.


By Percy Bysshe Shelley

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’d like to hear the poem, here is a video with illustrations from the fantastic Gavin Aung Than of Zen Pencils.

I recommend reading the Poetry Foundation’s essay on this poem, by David Mikics. It includes a history (written on the same weekend that gave us Frankenstein!) and an analysis. “The seemingly infinite empty space provides an appropriate comment on Ozymandias’ political will, which has no content except the blind desire to assert his name and kingly reputation.” Unfortunately, that final phrase could have been written about our current president.

22 responses to “Poetry Friday: A Shattered Visage”

  1. Appreciations for sharing a potent piece needed at this Time in US history.
    I look forward to listening to it presented at the link later.
    Wishing you & your family a peaceful weekend & all the weeks following.


  2. tanita♥ says:

    I LOVE Zen Pencils and this was SUCH a great combo of narration and images! Love, love, love it. And yes: love that parallel irony: Look upon my mighty works and despair!
    Um, nah. No, thanks.
    I’ll just stop looking now, and hope everyone else does, too…

    • Laura Shovan says:

      I love Gene’s work. He chooses such interesting quotes and texts and his artwork enriches the experience of reading.

  3. Thanks for pulling this poem out Laura, so powerful and sadly apropos. Enjoyed the video too. I agree with Tanita, let’s not give him any more ammunition, i.e. attention, let him fade out and then feed him to the courts–they’ve been preparing for him…

    • Laura Shovan says:

      Thanks, Michelle. The poem was present in my mind this week. When power is used for good works, it is sustaining to others. When it is used to increase one’s personal ower, it is fleeting. And dangerous.

  4. Linda Baie says:

    I saw the Zen Pencils, too, Laura. My high school English teacher gave this poem to us in her own voice. I remember her emotion, but part (she said later) came from her thoughts on Hitler. I keep thinking of the wreckage, “lone and level sands stretch far away”. He wants so much attention & I wonder, though we don’t really know, how many of his supporters love getting it, too? Thanks for sharing.

    • Laura Shovan says:

      Over the past four years, I have wondered many times what future historians will say about this president, the psychology of his followers. As they tried to raise a Trump flag over the Capitol, I realized that some would make him “King of Kings.”

    • Kay Jernigan McGriff says:

      I had not thought of Ozymandias in light of this week, but oh, it does fit. I suspect the current President is beginning to feel some of that barren emptiness as social media platforms have shut or suspended his accounts.

  5. Laura, that is a powerful connection with a classic poem from history– and one that offers echoes of what’s happening today. Wow. Thanks for sharing this in our Poetry Friday gathering too. So much to mull over…

  6. This is a timely and powerful post. The thirst for power is nothing new so why do people chose to not see it for what it is? Thanks for sharing this.

  7. Thank you for sharing this poem, Laura. It has been many years since I read it, and honestly, had forgotten its power. I have chills reading it again after the week we’ve had, and after reading Linda’s comment about her teacher’s telling her it reminded her of Hitler.

  8. Linda Mitchell says:

    Oooooh! I’m going to use this for Poetry Friday this coming with my students. Thank you!
    I find students thirsty for creativity. I love asking students to illustrate a poem. So, I’m going to also provide a graphic novel panel template and ask them to illustrate a poem of their choice.

    • Laura Shovan says:

      Let me know what they think, Linda! Using a graphic novel template is such a great idea, especially with a visual poem like this one.

  9. Ruth says:

    You’re right – this poem is super-appropriate for right now. It’s such a testimony to faded glory, and how even a powerful nation can turn into a wreck. May we come back from the brink this time!

    • Laura Shovan says:

      There are so many layers of power behind our current crisis. Those who feared they would lose their power if they didn’t support a clearly unfit leader — they share the blame.

  10. Mary Lee says:

    Oof. Perfect poem for These Times…

    (and thanks for Zen Pencils!)

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Laura Shovan

Laura Shovan is the author of the award-winning middle grade novel, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary. Her second book, Takedown, is a Junior Library Guild and PJ Our Way selection. Look for A Place at the Table, co-written with Saadia Faruqi, in 2020. Laura is a poet-in-the-schools Maryland.

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