“I have never managed to lose my old conviction,” wrote G. K. Chesterton in the persona of Gabriel Gale, a fictional poet and sleuth, “that travel narrows the mind. At least a man must make a double effort of moral humility and imaginative energy to prevent it from narrowing his mind.” His point is that it was easy to stay in your comfortable home and imagine, let’s say, the Eskimos of Labrador, sitting round the fire in the hut, telling stories of the pagan northern gods, while they roasted a salmon, flavored with cloudberries they had gathered and saved from their short and poignantly sweet summer. It would have been a lot harder to meet the actual people, and you mightn’t have wanted to ask what was roasting. Really to travel is not to be what Chesterton called a “tripper” and what we’d call a tourist. It’s to be patient and humble enough to let mankind be what it is, in circumstances foreign to you, and then, if you are fortunate, you may get the great delight, when you return home, of seeing your own country for the first time as a foreign land, with its own romance and mystery.
But what would it be like to travel to a ruin? That’s what we’ve got in our Poem of the Week, “Ozymandias.” It’s a sonnet, with a kind of interlaced rhyme scheme that sometimes gives us three straight lines that don’t rhyme with each other, but do rhyme elsewhere, and the effect of that is to cause the poem to hover between art and straight, factual reportage. The second line, beginning with the deliberately dull words, “Who said,” introduces us to the subject of the poem, as if it were something to be seen without any strong emotional coloring to alter our view of it; and yet the poem is one of intense feeling, subtly expressed.
The unknown traveler has gone to some place like Egypt — we don’t know, and the fact that we don’t know makes the experience feel universal. It could be anywhere; if he were a space traveler, it could be on the windswept ruin of a dead planet. And all at once we see what he sees. It is a colossus, gone to smash: a statue of a “king of kings,” named Ozymandias. The torso is severed from the legs. The head is shattered and half sunk into the sand, but you can still read on it the character of Ozymandias: the “sneer of cold command.” There’s quite a bit of dramatic irony here, since the traveler imagines for us the scene thousands of years ago. The tyrant hired the sculptor to glorify him in stone. The sculptor did the job, but he was more artful than the tyrant could appreciate. For he understood this Ozymandias, and rendered him as cold, ruthless, and vain. He mocked the very king he seemed to praise, but the king was too pleased with himself to notice. And on the pedestal, we get an inscription that now reads like an epitaph: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” At which the poet need not comment. All he needs to do is to direct our attention to the lonely desert sands.
What does the traveler, not the tourist, learn from such an experience? He returns home, and he is glad of the bustle, but he may well wonder whether, a thousand years from now, such a place as his home will still exist. We hope so; we should love our homes. Our colossi and their vanity are another matter.
I MET a traveler 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.”
Word & Song is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymn, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber.