Jacques Barzun writes:

When an undergraduate at a great university in the nineties, my fatherly friend had taken a course on the English lyric. The readings were from Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, and the lectures, by a well-known scholar, consisted of a careful account of the lives of the poets. The schools they went to, the patrons and wives they had, the journeys they made, the books they read and published were minutely chronicled, with thoughtful discussions of moot points and rival theories. Then, after two or three hours thus spent, the lecturer would come to the assigned lyric: “And now, gentlemen, what shall we say of this exquisite work? There is only one thing to say — a gem, a gem!”

…that last ritual phrase had become a family catchword that had to be explained to every newcomer. When something was approved of in a general way, but not really known or warmly liked, it was “ajemmajem.” The girls themselves, when asked about a new young man who had proved pleasant but not entrancing, would reply casually, “Ajemmajem.”

Michaela Cooper, writing about Ozymandias, acquits herself more creditably. She steers clear of Shelley’s life, which has long been a magnet for fatuous utterance. She summarizes its themes accurately; ars longa vita brevis and sic semper tyrannis and all that. She discourses on Chinese boxes and Russian dolls — the traveller tells the story to the narrator, quoting the epigraph on the statue, which itself quotes Ozymandias! According to Michaela this represents “three different aesthetic modes,” though I fear that is more her idea than Shelley’s, who was reliably simple-minded. She even throws in a reference to Edward Said. Michaela has a promising future in literary scholarship, and I wish her all the best.

Still, when evaluation time rolls around, she treats us to “intensity,” “dramatic contrast,” and “mind-exploding effect”: ajemmajem, in short. Now I, too, once thought as Michaela and spake as Michaela. Ozymandias was the first sonnet I ever memorized and I still have it off by heart. So it is with regret that I report, from my dotage, that Ozymandias is a bad poem, trite, stereotyped, and imprecise at every turn.

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.”

Poets are supposed to take special pains with language; let’s look at the language. “Antique,” with its orientalizing flavor, was mildly embarrassing in 1817; it is more embarrassing now. Edward Said would certainly object were he alive to do so. Nothing could be worse than “lone and level,” unless it is “boundless and bare.” Both pairs are applied to the sands; one would have more than sufficed. The vast and trunkless legs of stone present a striking image. Torsi missing their appendages are common enough, but Shelley’s trunkless legs and head are unique, to my knowledge, in the history of statuary.

The visage raises further difficulties. It’s no easy trick to frown and sneer at once; try it sometime. And to discern a frown, a wrinkled lip, and a sneer of cold command in a shattered visage one would have to be a remarkably perceptive traveller. “Fragmented” perhaps, “faded” possibly; but “shattered”? This was one of Shelley’s favorite adjectives, and he employed it here because he liked the sound.

In line 8 we have the heart that fed. What did it feed? If we generously allow “them” to serve as the object of “fed” along with “mocked,” then the heart fed “those passions” in line 6. The heart must belong to Ozymandias; so the passage means, “the sculptor well understood the passions that fed Ozymandias’s heart, and that the sculptor mocked, and that survive both the sculptor and Ozymandias.” But this is too convoluted to be impressive.

I can sympathize with the sentiment of Ozymandias, as I can with most of Shelley. But its theme is banal, and banally expressed. Michaela describes Ozymandias as “viscerally political and democratic,” emphasizing the political and democratic. Spare a thought for “viscerally” too.

(Update: George Wallace improves on the original. Michaela Cooper replies, in detail. I think she’s right about “antique,” and I like, though am not convinced by, the links to the frowning and sneering statues. Mike Snider comments. Rick Coencas comments. Chris Lott comments.)

Aaron Haspel | Posted November 18, 2003 @ 9:53 PM | Poetry

36 Responses to “Ajemmajem”

  1. 1 1. David Sucher

    Surely you jest.


  2. 2 2. David Sucher

    On at least two:
    1. That you would knock a poem (in part) because it uses the word "antique," a word that is somehow supposed to be "embarassing;" (I thought the allusion to Said a particularly witty touch.)
    2. That you would state that the poem’s "theme is banal." I’d say that if it’s theme is banal, then so is breathing.

    Your critique seemed so jaded I thought you must be joking with a wit simply beyond a mere philistine.

    Alas, you appear to be serious? And do you too also rave about Disney Hall? :)


  3. 3 3. Aaron Haspel

    "Antique," as Shelley uses it, is a poeticism for "old." It’s like "ere" for before, but worse, because it costs syllables instead of saving them.

    Breathing, though I am passionately fond of it, is banal, in the sense that it would be difficult, though probably not impossible, to write a good poem on the subject.


  4. 4 4. Aaron Haspel

    On what count? And don’t call me Shirley.


  5. 5 5. acdouglas

    "Fragmented" perhaps, "faded" possibly; but "shattered"? This was one of Shelley’s favorite adjectives, and he employed it here because he liked the sound.

    Oh dear. There you go again. Insisting on the absolutely rational in the poetic.

    "Shattered" is not only the right word here, it’s the only word that will do to convey the multileveled poetic imagery clearly sought by the poet. "Fragmented" is way too clinical, and "faded" positively pallid.

    Oh, and BTW, the "heart that fed" belonged not to Ozymandias, but to the sculptor.

    Regards,

    ACD


  6. 6 6. acdouglas

    Oops. Incomplete thought in my last.

    My,

    "Fragmented" is way too clinical, and "faded" positively pallid,

    should have read:

    "Fragmented" is way too clinical, and "faded" positively pallid, and positively wrong.

    ACD


  7. 7 7. Michael Krantz

    Well, I’ll say this much for Aaron: for the rest of my life, whenever I see a reference to poor old Ozymandias, along with those vast and trunkless legs of stone, the first thing that will come to mind will be the question of how one can at once frown and sneer. Doh!


  8. 8 8. Aaron Haspel

    I’m not rewriting Ozymandias. I’m pointing out that if the visage is shattered, which meant the same thing in 1817 that it does now, then the next lines make no sense. Poetry, like prose, is obliged to make sense.

    If the sculptor owns the heart that fed, what is the object of "fed"? If it’s "those [Ozymandias’s] passions" which it must be, there’s no other antecedent in shouting distance then how can the sculptor’s heart feed them?


  9. 9 9. acdouglas

    I’m not rewriting Ozymandias. I’m pointing out that if the visage is shattered, which meant the same thing in 1817 that it does now, then the next lines make no sense.

    The "shattered" refers not merely to the physical piece of sculpture lying all broken in the sand (which is the very least of it), but poetically to what that proud face once was, meant, beheld, and envisaged, now all shattered, as is that face’s (as representing the whole man) legacy.

    If the sculptor owns the heart that fed, what is the object of "fed"? If it’s "those [Ozymandias’s] passions" – which it must be, there’s no other antecedent in shouting distance – then how can the sculptor’s heart feed them?

    What the sculptor’s heart fed (i.e., informed) was the life with which he, as do all artists, imbued his creation, the statue of Ozymandias.

    No charge.

    ACD


  10. 10 10. Aaron Haspel

    AC: Words, I will continue to insist, denote first and connote second. You are right that "shattered" is in keeping with the tenor of the poem, but that is not the whole poem, as you imply, only part of it. The word does such violence to the literal meaning, the vehicle, that the passage becomes ridiculous. The visage would have been better without any adjective at all; in fact Shelley tarts the whole poem up with them. Pound advised Eliot to cut all the adjectives out of The Waste Land; unfortunately he was born too late to advise Shelley.

    Your interpretation of the heart may well be what Shelley had in mind; with Shelley it is often hard to tell. But it is at odds with the syntax on the page, where "fed" can take only "those passions" as an object. The nearest reference in the text to the statue’s life is, ironically, the phrase "these lifeless things," and that is clearly in apposition.


  11. 11 11. Jim Valliant

    If "insisting on the absolutely rational in the poetic" means that Aaron insists that the thing make sense, then I want to know who exempted poets from the dictates of language and logic and, above all, meaning? When I hear this, I get that same creepy feeling that I always get from listening to discussions of Abstact Expressionism in painting, the sense that today’s "artists" actually resent the requirement to be comprehensible.


  12. 12 12. John Hinchey

    Aaron:

    I think AC is right–"the heart that fed [those passions’) says that the artist drew on his self-knowledge in representing the passions of Ozymandias–which I think is generally true of all art and especially true in this case where the passions invoked seem to be at bottom a passion for immortality. And so the king and the artist are somewhat equated–which is not the usual Romantic stance. And they get their immortality, after a fashion, though one of an especially desolate sort. Not what they had in mind, I’m sure. And I don’t see anything at all banal in this.

    Also, an old land is just an old land but an antique one is old and dead, or half-dead. Think about it: it’s one thing to be told "you’re old" nd another to be told "you’re an antique." And the near redundancy of "boundless and bare" and "lone and level" is not a fault but purposefully forces a lingering contemplativeness. I must admit that this makes the poem a bit too moody for my taste–that way lies Swinburne–but that’s just my taste. Some people like poems to linger in their moods. There’s nothing wrong with that–"de gustibus" and all.

    Having defended it, I’ll also concede that this is not one of my favorites by any means. I had to memorize it too, but I couldn’t now recite more than a phrase of two to save my life. The language just isnt memorable. It feels more like a dream than a poem: once the words deliver the dream–which I think they do quite well–the words disappear & cease to interest. That’s not true of what I consider the best poetry. But again, that’s just me.


  13. 13 13. acdouglas

    I don’t mean to beat up on you about this, but….

    You are right that "shattered" is in keeping with the tenor of the poem, but that is not the whole poem, as you imply, only part of it. The word does such violence to the literal meaning, the vehicle, that the passage becomes ridiculous.

    "Shattered" does violence to "visage" only if one insists on taking the latter word foremost and primarily as referring to the physical fragments of statuary that were the statue’s face. The poet’s use of the word "shattered" in that context is the reader’s almost immediate "red light" tip-off that "visage" was not intended foremost or primarily by the poet to refer to the physical fragments of statuary lying broken in the sand.

    Your interpretation of the heart may well be what Shelley had in mind; with Shelley it is often hard to tell. But it is at odds with the syntax on the page, where "fed" can take only "those passions" as an object.

    No sir. Not merely "those passions," but those passions which were stamped on the lifeless (i.e., stone) "frown…wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command"; which is to say, stamped there with perfect veracity as in life because informed (i.e., fed) by the sculptor’s "heart" which "well those passions read."

    ACD (a poetry dummy who feels a bit silly lecturing a poetry expert)


  14. 14 14. Aaron's sister

    Well, if ACD’s a poetry dummy, I don’t know what that makes me, but I’m going to jump in here anyway. I’m going to defend "antique" and "shattered" on the undeniably pedestrian grounds that they both help form a vivid picture of the scene. "Antique," unlike "old," implies a kind of anachronistic charm. I, too, memorized the poem way back when, and I always pictured north Africa. "Shattered" has always made me visualize fist-sized chunks, one of which has that all-important sneer, intact.

    I don’t suppose this is much of a defense — I like "antique" and "shattered" because they make me see it all clearly. Still, it must be worth something.

    But, Aaron, I’m with you on "the heart that fed." It seems for all the world he just needed something that rhymed with "read."


  15. 15 15. Aaron Haspel

    I don’t mind being lectured by "novices"; if there’s one thing blogging makes clear it’s that "experts" are often wrong. However: if, as AC claims, it’s the stone that’s lifeless, not the statue, then "things," in the plural, becomes problematic. And we are still up to our ears in grammar trouble. "[S]tamped on these lifeless things," is an adjectival phrase in apposition to "those passions." AC is saying that the "them" of "the hand that mocked them" refers to "those passions" while the elided "them" of the "heart that fed" refers to the object of the adjectival phrase in apposition to "those passions." This is grammatically impossible, and if it were possible it would be far more convoluted than the interpretation for which I criticized Shelley in the first place.

    Enough of "shattered." Great poetry works at the level of the tenor and the vehicle. Ozymandias, we can agree, does not.

    John and my sister stand up for "antique." It is a pseudo-poeticism, but I concede that it has overtones that "old" lacks. On the list of flaws in the poem it ranks pretty low.

    "[L]one and level" and "boundless and bare," applied to a desert, are high-school-lit-mag language. They force a lingering contemplativeness, as the reader contemplates, lingeringly, why he bothered with this poem in the first place.


  16. 16 16. John Hinchey

    Aaron:

    Yes, high-school lit–although that’s probably an anachronistic characterization, since when you and (even more so) I (the antique one) went to high school, this poem was a major part of what was shoved at us and others to define what is "poetic." I’m not sure that’s true anymore. Maya Angelou has probably displaced Shelley.

    But this tone (and the technique for getting it) was relatively new with Shelley, although I agree romantic melancholy is easy to for high school students so affect because it is not the profoundest mood known to man, and I agree this is not the best poem in the world. But it is a poem and it does manage to make something of a lasting impression on (most) readers, so let’s give Shelley credit for accomplishing something probably worth accomplishing, and leave it at that.

    If, however, you want to introduce a motion to forbid high school teachers to use this as an example of poetry to emulate, I’ll second it.

    By the way, have you ever read Louis Zukofsky’s A Test of Poetry? If not, you should. I think you’ll find it to your taste. He’s severein his critical judgments like Winters, but from a somewhat different base assumption as to what poetry can be up to (one I prefer to Winters), so you’ll no doubt find much to agree with and much to argue with.


  17. 17 17. David Sucher

    Hey!
    I like "Antique," too.


  18. 18 18. acdouglas

    AC is saying that the "them" of "the hand that mocked them" refers to "those passions" while the elided "them" of the "heart that fed" refers to the object of the adjectival phrase in apposition to "those passions." This is grammatically impossible….

    Um, no. The "them" of both refer to the same thing; i.e., those passions which were stamped (by the sculptor) on the lifeless (i.e., because stone) "frown…wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command."

    Now, about "antique"….

    ACD


  19. 19 19. acdouglas

    To further clarify…

    The life imbued in the statue by the sculptor is principally to be found in the "frown…wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command"; that life consisting of "those passions" which the sculptor "stamped" there "fed" (i.e., informed) by the enabling agency of his "heart" which "well those passions read."

    I trust I don’t make myself obscure.

    ACD


  20. 20 20. acdouglas

    Oops, Missing words in my last. The center graf should have read:

    The life imbued in the statue by the sculptor is principally to be found in the otherwise lifeless (because stone) "frown…wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command"; that life consisting of "those passions" which the sculptor "stamped" there "fed" (i.e., informed) by the enabling agency of his "heart" which "well those passions read."

    ACD


  21. 21 21. Baloney

    "Poetry, like prose, is obliged to make sense."

    No, it is not, and this is why you will never understand poetry.


  22. 22 22. Baloney

    That is, it is perfectly reasonable to say "poetry is obliged to make sense if its author wishes to please me", but the blanket statement puts you in the league of screwballs like Silliman, who insist that poetry they don’t personally approve of is bad or even somehow evil, or that nobody else can possibly approve of it without being ignorant or deluded.


  23. 23 23. Aaron Haspel

    The claim in your first comment that I will never understand poetry unless I discard my quaint notion that it should make sense strikes me as a blanket statement of precisely the type to which you object in your second. If all remarks about poetry are true only for the speaker, what’s the point of discussing it?


  24. 24 24. Baloney

    [If he thinks that he has just given a serious argument, further contention would be pointless.]


  25. 25 25. Aaron Haspel

    I shall leave the question of who offered a serious argument as an exercise for the reader.


  26. 26 26. Baloney

    You are simply incapable of thinking clearly about this. There is no point. You are only pseudo-literate, your understanding of poetry is that of an undereducated 5th-grade schoolmarm, and your reflections are a desiccated simulacra of serious humanistic thought. ("But a simulacra can’t be desiccated!")


  27. 27 27. Aaron Haspel

    Simulacra can be desiccated. What they can’t be is singular.


  28. 28 28. Baloney

    Ah-hah! So you passed my test! Yeah. Yeah. I’m scratching my ching.


  29. 29 29. .

    What I love about modern entrenched elitists is the sentiment of, "You should like what I like because it’s good," combined with the idea of, "You should be open to all things from all people." Makes you wonder where they think they’re getting their authority from.

    I like Ozymandias. It’s not my favorite poem by far, but it’s momentarily satiating. Maybe I’m strange but I don’t feel the need to making attacks on a person for criticizing something I generally like.


  30. 30 30. David Novak

    Ozymandias (now that I’ve read it) brought to mind "The Children and Sir Nameless" by Thomas Hardy. Kind of a similar theme as Shelly’s, but done with less bombast or pretension.


  31. 31 31. acdouglas

    Well, Aaron, if you’re really unhappy with Shelley’s try at this Ozymandias subject, perhaps you’ll like this attempt by George Wallace a bit better. It’s got a neat, uh, beat to it.

    ACD


  32. 32 32. Tatyana

    Just a passing thought.(Michaela, don’t shoot, I came in peace)
    As somebody who once spent a summer on archeological dig in Asia, may I suggest the "frowning" fragment and "sneering" fragment came from different statures? Or even that wasn’t Ozimandias at all, but Kronos (sp?)?


  33. 33 33. George Wallace

    For the sake of reducing this discussion to utter absurdity, I have taken the liberty of posting another frowning sneer, this one ripped from the tabloids.


  34. 34 34. Buggy

    I think anyone claiming poetry expertise misses the point (unless the point is to make the entire art self-referential), but I came across the tail of this poem in a Martin Amis piece, was wholly struck by its "lyricism" (is that a sufficiently profession-sounding phrase?), and not already knowing the poem I googled it to here … where my introduction to it was some awful Dead Poet’s Socialite shattering of the poem. Bah. Capital-Q Quality is in the eye of the beholder, as is Capital-P Pretension. -b.


  35. 35 35. Aaron Haspel

    You liked the poem. You have no reasons that you can articulate for liking the poem. You are offended that I disliked the poem, and further offended that I was "pretentious" enough to offer reasons for my dislike. I continue to marvel, however, at the number of words people who think arguing over poetry is useless will expend on arguing over poetry.


  36. 36 36. Loxhore

    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;

    How’s this difficult? ‘them’ is ‘those passions’. Shelley’s saying the sculptor was a fine artist who understood the heart that fed his subject’s passions — physiognomically manifested in that improbable sneering frown — AS WELL as the impulse to mockery such passion rouses from dispassionate observers like the sculptor & like Shelley. In a beautiful ambiguity, the mocking hand may be *read* as the sculpting hand, the writing hand, or both. Perhaps Shelley detected a note of parody in the sculptor’s (with whom, as another artist, he identifies) depiction of Oxymandias’ frowning cold command. Shelley simply admires the sculptor’s complex artistry.

    Best thing about this passage its woven assonance in lies-survive-lifeless, wrinkled lip-things & shattered-command-passions-stamped-hand.

    Not that I disagree with you. The poem is certainly overrated.


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