Jun 23, 2010

Shelley's "Ozymandias" in Our Time


I’ve never entirely understood the spirit of conquest, or monuments to oneself or one’s tribe.

I had a friend once who was a serious mountain climber. Let’s say Ben was a Dartmouth grad (those names are close enough) and an ex-marine (he was that), and one day in casual conversation, he spoke of “attacking the summit” of Mt. McKinley.

I wondered if this was the way all Dartmouth grads thought. They desired an assault and more or less assumed they would succeed. And the mountain, I suppose, would hang its head in defeat. I’d always felt sure I wasn’t Ivy League material, so this was comforting—this clinched it, and it had nothing to do with IQ. Whatever Ben was demonstrating—pluck? scrappiness? confidence? ambition? arrogance? energy?—I didn’t have it and didn’t want it. And still don’t.

So now I consider the current environmental crisis in the Gulf of Mexico. Then I work backward: the failure (and deceit) of the banks, the insurance companies, the insurer of the insurance companies, the infallibility and lack of redundancy in the Internet, the American auto companies and built-in obsolescence, the assault on Toyota’s competence and integrity, the fall of the Twin Towers, the Nixon presidency, Vietnam and imperialism in general (we even have margarine that's Imperial). Somebody is salivating at the prospect of somebody else's summit.

In that light, Shelley’s famous sonnet, “Ozymandias,” seems remarkably on target, though it goes all the way back to Egypt’s Ramses II for its model.

Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

This poem is perhaps over-taught and over-anthologized. But how can we over-expose the young or ourselves to such an important, chilling tale of arrogance? I doubt it will do any good; attacking summits or other people’s sand or retirement accounts is too much fun for too many scrappers and too many people on silver spoons in overdrive. But we can say we tried.

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6 comments:

Brenda's Arizona said...

Arrogance is a disease everyone else has. I have never heard a single person acknowledge their own arrogance. I like this poem in your light. It applies, doesn't it?

BANJO52 said...

Very interesting! I probably agree, but need to let it percolate till tomorrow. Hope others weigh in on your point as well as mine or the poem.

gothpunkuncle said...

Arrogance is a dance we can chose to do or not. The real disease addressed in these last two successful lyrics -- they've got similar platforms -- is mortality. Dartmouth Ben's dust will make no tastier mud pie than community college Glen's. I'm convinced that ALL poetry is commemorative, elegaic (sp?) if you will. These odd little jiggers take the place of a moment lost to us forever, even if that moment is internal, cognitive, slap-dash or random.

I had a dream once that I was playing Shelley on stage opposite Johnny Depp's Byron (subconscious arrogance, anyone?) Having just confessed this in writing on Mr. Banjo's fine blog, the ephemeral is now real, the dream archived forever, right?

In my waking hours, I find Shelley overbearing, but this fine poem takes the arrogance of a king and distances us from it rhetorically: O. never utters a word here, nor does his tomb, nor does the traveler; we forget the speaker who lingers outside of this like the first shed casing in a set of nesting dolls.

(The "odd little jiggers" line is Ashbery.

BANJO52 said...

GPU, I could probably spend time usefully on each of your sentences. So to be brief, at least for now, I really like the way you re-phrase or re-frame things at the end of your Paragraph One and in all of Paragraph Two. The notion of art (and offspring) as a step around mortality has been with us for awhile, but you give it interesting new life. "Archive" alone seems a perfect new (to me) word.

As for THIS poem, it might be true that it's the only Shelley I go back to and/or remember.

Maybe you can make me like Ashberry after all. Should we riff on his relevance to the present discussion? If Ashberry's little jigglers (I keep hearing "wiggler," which goes in a whole other direction) are comprehensible only to him, how useful are they as a monument and a stay against mortality? I admit I haven't given him a fair chance, but it's also true that he hasn't made me want to.

You and Johnny Depp dueling on stage--wow! Thank you. How's this for a DEEP closer: can arrogance be unconscious? If it's unconscious, is it arrogance? Pondering that is almost as much fun as too much coffee.

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BANJO52 said...

Brenda, this morning I might not agree after all. I don't know if I catch ALL of my own arrogance, but I catch some of it and try rather hard to see the rest of what's OK and not OK in me.

There's more, but I might convert it to a post today or tomorrow.

For now, my echo of J. Alfred Prufrock: "No, I am not Tony Heyward, nor was meant to be." Did I spell his name right? In his world there are no rules, including spelling . . .

Brenda's Arizona said...

When a friend 'shines' (or gloats), is it arrogance? When GPU stars with Johnny Depp and tells us about it, is he bragging, being arrogant, or just being a really cool friend? (GPU, I think you are on to something big here. Can't wait for more!!)

I like your Tony Hayward throw in at the end. But re: JAPrufrock - he thinks no one is ever 'coming back' or going to return, so "without fear of infamy I answer you" - not as an arrogant bastard, but as a thought said outloud - as a little jigger? The Donald Trumps of the world -the Tony Haywards of our field - are easily called arrogance. The rest of us? People say shyness is an arrogance, too.

B52, you have lots of tangents spawning here. Can't wait for more!

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