I read a Facebook post on January 11 of this year announcing that it was the 200th anniversary of the day The Examiner published Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, “Ozymandias.”
I had to look up the pronunciation. Several folks say Ah-zee-mahn-dee-us. Others say Ah-zee-man-dee-us. But some say to fit the meter of the sonnet, the name should be scrunched into four syllables—something like Ah-zee-man (or mahn)-jis.
I’ll bet you thought I knew what a sonnet was, right? I can never remember, so I had to look that up, too. Count the lines (14). Count the syllables (10). Notice the rhyme scheme (abab). Check out the infographic.
Come back to Ozzy. I read the poem through a couple of times and then set off to follow not a few bunny trails. One blogger wrote that the poem “is so famous that it really needs no introduction.” If that’s the case, how come the first I heard of it was maybe six months ago when my life coach included it on a list of poems she thought I should tuck into my heart? Did I fall asleep during high school English? Did my college friends memorize it while I was memorizing the 12 cranial nerves in nursing school?
The story goes that Percy (husband to Mary who dreamed up Frankenstein) and his friend, Horace Smith, were sharing cups of tea (or maybe glasses of something stronger) and chatting about some recent archaeological finds. They remembered that an ancient historian had written about the statue of a character named Ozymandias, a.k.a. Ramses II, possibly the same Egyptian Pharaoh from the Book of Exodus. Inspired by their conversation, the two decided—or maybe they dared each other—to write sonnets about this “colossal wreck,” sight unseen. Apparently, these little games were rather common pastimes in those days. “In such competitions two or more poets would each write a sonnet on an agreed subject against the clock,” explains Stephen Hebron of the British Library.
As it happened, Shelley was the winner. His poem became “one of the best-known sonnets in European literature,” according to David Miciks at Poetry Foundation. Who knew? Not me.
Smith’s poem, with the colossal title “On a Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below,” was printed in The Examiner on February 1, 1818, but it never gained the stature that Shelley’s poem did. Now it mostly gathers dust, though sometimes someone may dig it up and brush it off. I’m glad that one wasn’t on my list. It’d take a few days just to memorize the title.
A phrase from The Historical Library of Diodorus the Sicilian regarding an inscription on an Egyptian monument of Ramses II reads:
I am Osymandyas, king of kings; if any would know how great I am, and where I lie, let him excel me in any of my works
Hebron wondered if those words might have served as a poetry prompt for the “dare” since both poets used a similar phrase in their poems.
“I am great Ozymandias,” saith the stone,
“The King of kings; this mighty city shows
The wonders of my hand.”
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
In my wanderings with tour guide Mr. Google, I found several references to the television series Breaking Bad (which I’ve never watched). The 60th episode was titled “Ozymandias” and “draws on the poem’s theme of collapse following greatness.” It has been hailed as one of the finest episodes of the series, and some say it was one of the most powerful episodes of dramatic television ever produced—though the description sounds a little too graphic for my taste. Here is a video of Bryan Cranston, the lead actor of the show, reading the poem:
And here’s an animation based on that reading:
I decided to celebrate the poem’s big birthday by committing it to memory (it’ll make my coach proud). And I’m going with the four-syllables-to-the-name pronunciation for proper sonnet rhythm.
Also, I’m kind of wishing now I’d named that Cheerio-begging duck that frequents our back door “Ozzy” instead of “Dude. “
—Percy Bysshe Shelley
Here’s a dare for you (okay, two dares):
1. Write a poem based on the phrase “I am Osymandyas, king of kings; if any would know how great I am, and where I lie, let him excel me in any of my works.” It can be a sonnet or a haiku or any form you choose.
2. Had you ever heard of “Ozymandias?” (Please tell me I’m not alone.) I dare you to memorize the poem.
For further reading: Find out more about “Ozymandias” from Shmoop.