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.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818.
Shelley published this now-famous poem a few years before his tragic death, age 29. He hadn’t taken the literary world (such as it was) by storm, yet he was definitely living the literary lifestyle which only the idle rich could afford. A subversive and unrepentant iconoclast, he was part of an underground intelligentsia that included wife Mary Shelley and Lord Byron, but also other poets both remembered and lost to time. Shelley, the flame which burned twice as bright but half as long, met his end while recklessly sailing during a storm in the Gulf of Spezia. But everybody knows that already; so riddle me this — who else did Shelley kill that day on his boat?
Horace Smith wasn’t one of them. By the time of Shelley’s tragic denouement, he had put away childish things and embarked upon a successful career in stockbroking. Smith died quietly on the 12 July 1849 at the ripe old age of 69, and is remembered to the world humiliatingly as ‘the other guy’ in the sonnet-writing competition that gave the world Ozymandias. To the unkind, Smith was a camp-follower, insinuating himself into a coterie of vibrant young people hoping for, who knows, some osmotic transfer of talent? Smith’s contribution, deservedly buried in the sands of time, at least teaches us how NOT to name a poem:
In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows.
“I am great Ozymandias,” saith the stone,
“The King of kings: this mighty city shows
The wonders of my hand.” The city’s gone!
Naught but the leg remaining to disclose
The sight of that forgotten Babylon.
We wonder, and some hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when through the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the wolf in chase,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What wonderful, but unrecorded, race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
On a Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below,
Horace Smith, 1818.
Horace lost it for me at ‘sandy silence’. Some twenty years after Shelley’s death, this workmanly writer described his first meeting with Shelley (in 1816) and how the young poet “laid his whole many-thoughted mind bare” to him while strolling in the heath. Intoxicated by his company, Horace became Shelley’s defender and apologist forever, forgiving the young reprobate his many sins. But breathing the same air as Shelley (and Keats, and Byron) gave Horace nothing, and the twenty-odd books, and numerous essays and poems he wrote are all but lost. Few remember Horace Smith, except by reference to Shelley’s life. Nobody remembers Edward Elleker Williams or Charles Vivian, except by reference to Shelley’s death.
Edward Elleker Williams met Shelley in 1821 in Italy, where the poet’s wife Mary Shelley was convalescing after her third miscarriage. Unsympathetic towards his wife, Shelley instead fixated on Williams’ young wife Jane, an infatuation surely not lost on the retired naval officer when they embarked on that fateful trip across the bay. Williams, a year younger that Shelley, had literary pretensions of his own but no talent whatsoever, so appears to have endured the humiliation of cuckolding for the chance to bask in Shelley’s luminous proximity. Another sad hanger-on, like Horace Smith, Williams had inherited a small fortune, which gave him the means to leech onto the Shelley circle, and ultimately follow the poet to his doom. But if he hadn’t been on that boat, would we remember Edward Elleker Williams at all?
Percy Bysshe Shelley is remembered not because he could chug a pint of beer, or fart a proximate version of ‘God Save the King’ or even because he was a shit mariner. He is remembered for the lyricism of his poetry and the untimeliness of his death. If he had lived to be 69, like Horace Smith, and never fulfilled the promise of his youth, would we remember him now? Or would we think less of him: a bloated Elvis Presley comes to mind, or a bleached Michael Jackson. The Shelley who inspired us in highschool English classes was not the selfish asshole he was in real life. But why let reality get in the way of a good legend. I guess the question has always been this: how many of our three-score and ten years should we squander grasping at immortality, when at best we’re likely to be relegated to a footnote in some forgotten anthology? Do we follow Shelley’s example, and stamp our lives on lifeless things? Or is there more to life.