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.)