The least poetic of students
The English tutor was away and it might have been reasonable to have expected that the class would be dismissed upon being marked present. The departmental head was not happy with such an arrangement, and handed out passages of poetry on which we were to comment. It seemed unjust; poetry was bad enough without being presented with previously unseen material. I received a copy of Shelley’s Ozymandias:
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.’
An obstreperous seventeen year old, I wrote that I found the poem dull, flat and unexciting. The departmental head was understandably unimpressed. The piece I handed in was returned the following week with a single sentence in red ink at the bottom, “Will you be remembered longer than Shelley?”
Coincidentally, the history classes at that time were covering early Nineteenth Century British history, a violent and oppressive time. Shelley had a particular dislike for Lord Castlereagh, a prominent member of the government. Shelley’s comments on Castlereagh were less literary than his lines on Ozymandias:
I met Murder on the way –
He had a face like Castlereagh –
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven bloodhounds followed him
All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.
Castlereagh’s mental health, his belief he was being blackmailed, and his vilification in public drove him to commit suicide by cutting his own throat in 1822 (the sort of detail one recalls from classes).
We never had a class with the departmental head again. But I was primed to say, “No, I won’t be remembered longer than Shelley, but nor, I hope, will I play a part in someone’s suicide”, which did not address the question of failing to appreciate the merits of the poem, but at seventeen seemed a fair rejoinder.
For thirty years, I have had stand off with Shelley, which is a pity, because I would have agreed with his politics and would have shared his opinion on Castlereagh. Because of a class that I felt we shouldn’t have had, something has been missed.
Amongst the books tidied before I departed from Ireland on Tuesday is a copy of A Choice of Shelley’s Verse by Stephen Spender. It cost €1 on a parish bookstall, and on Page 26 has those memorable words:
I met a traveller from an antique land . . .
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