Tuesday, August 12, 2008

That colossal wreck

One poem that's worth every effort, is unfailingly in any anthology, is badly taught (or was: the dumbed-down National Curriculum rendered such study irrelevant), and so passes over the head of most students, has to be:
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.
Shelley's sonnet was a spear-carrier behind David Aaronovitch's holiday soliloquy for the Times last Saturday:
Nowhere offers as much to the ruin-lover as does Turkey. From the Armenian churches and graveyards to the relics of the empire of Seleucus, the kingdoms of the Hellenistic era, the remnants of the civilisation of Midas, the Ottomans, Venetians, Crusaders, Hittites, Romans, the scattered reminders of strange sects and powerful religions, the almost unvisited yet complete Greek hill towns, it lies all around the visitor, requiring only his or her curiosity.

But almost anywhere will do. A stone in a wood, a piece of tile swept by a 1950s flood towards the banks of the Severn, an old brick wall, the shadow of a Victorian advertisement on a gable, these are sufficient. It is all, as Shelley put it in Ozymandias, “a shatter'd visage”, a reminder of the end of things, and - because we are there to find it - of their continuation.

And there is something else - about our own mortality and what we leave behind us. Shelley's Ozymandias was written in 1817 as part of a sonnet-composing session with the mostly forgotten poet Horace Smith.
He then quotes the sestet from Smith (of that, more in a moment).

Whichever beak at William Ellis imposed Ozy upon Aaronovitch left a permanent mark, for it appeared previously, when Aaonovitch had the decency to associate with the better class of journos of the Farringdon Road:
It was a strange thing to wake up early on Sunday morning, and see the first light catch, not the tip of the wife's alabaster nose, but the gigantic brown cheek of Pharoah Amenophis III. Further down the hall, under the arm of another Ozymandias, three small boys lay like caterpillars in their sleeping bags, while opposite me a dad snored immensely, stretched out next to a basalt clerk from a later dynasty.

I've been doing this for the past couple of years, bringing a child or two to the sleepovers organised by the Young Friends of the British Museum. Late at night when the visitors are all long gone, 150 or so of us make masks, listen to stories, or dance among the sarcophagi and statues. On my second visit a friend of my daughter's (a real London boy) celebrated our privileged access to the Greek gods by bringing along a metal tape measure, and ostentatiously measuring all the marble penises he could find. Different aspects of the past affect people in different ways.
That's a piece, by the way, which develops into the pillage of the Baghdad museums.

Until last Saturday, Malcolm wotted not of "the mostly forgotten poet Horace Smith". So, inspired by Aaronovitch's hint, he went looking and found (original spelling) -- and liked:
In Egypt's sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desart 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,—
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.

We wonder,—and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
The story so far

The original idea is derived from a Greek "historical library" by Diodorus of Sicily (90-21 BC). "Ozymandias" is the name Greeks used for Ramses II. Shelley and Smith wrote their poems in competition (the Shelleys seemed to make a thing about such contests: that's supposedly how Frankenstein was drafted). Shelley and Smith both had their sonnets published in Leigh Hunt's The Examiner (issues of January 11 and February 1, 1818).

And that's about it. One poet, and poem prospered and became universal. The other, unfairly on this evidence, lapsed into obscurity:
If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow and which will not,
Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear
Your favours nor your hate. ...
We've all done it

We stood and looked and wondered, and muttered that tag from Shelley.

Malcolm finds himself doing so, as Aaronovitch's second paragraph nicely describes, and perhaps more so at modern, rather than antique ruins. It is part of us, and (in Aaronovitch's neat word) of our "continuation" -- and, implicitly, the anticipation of our own demise.

Ancient decrepitude is explicable: we all accept the ravages of time (though the megalomania of a Ramses or a Nero deserves special scorn). Our own times have produced enough plangent shatter'd visages. There's all those bits of Fritz Todt's Westwall lying around, for a start, memorialising those who built them, and who had no "continuation".

The site of this forgotten Babylon

Some years back, Malcolm led a family trek through the southern skirts of Nürnberg to find the Zeppelinfeld.

There, too, was Speer's unfinished Congress Hall, where the Nazi Party were to assemble to be berated by the Fűhrer. It was, when Malcolm visited, the municipal store yard and dump.

There was only one other visiting car that day, another British couple. Surprising that? Or not? As Malcolm and his family came through the entrance tunnel, someone, somewhere tipped a load of rubble. The echo was an uncomfortable half-echo from a Leni Riefenstahl sound-track. Flesh crawled. Older spines shivered. Ozymandias was only barely appropriate.

What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

Malcolm experienced this, most painfully, at the Fulton Street viewing platform, overlooking Ground Zero (how many using that term recognise the irony of a reference to Hiroshima?)

But it does not have to be so epic, so epochal, so apocalyptic as that.

We often hit on a marvel of recent vintage, as Aaronovitch noted. It is now neglected or declining into decay or being trashed for something new. We are, indeed, all of us different to Ozymandias only in the scale of arrogance and presumption. Let's count in here the dying months of the old Wembley. The dereliction of industrial Britain, steelyards and garden sheds: north Sheffield, anyone? Those dead steam behemoths, lined up, rusting, redundant and on the way to scrap (see right). That motor-cycle, forever idle at the back of the garage, passed on from a younger Malcolm.

A dominie reminisces

Smith's sonnet, though, prompts Malcolm to remember even "difficult" classes would respond to particular short stories. One that worked repeatedly was Arthur C. Clarke's The Forgotten Enemy.

After a sudden climate change, northern Europe becomes uninhabitably cold. Professor Millward, alone, remains in London, camped in the Senate House tower of London University, among the books to which he had dedicated his life:
Three hundred feet below, the broken sea of snow-covered roofs lay bathed in the bitter moonlight. Miles away the tall stacks of Battersea Power Station glimmered like thin white ghosts against the night sky. Now that the dome of St. Paul's had collapsed beneath the weight of snow, they alone challenged his supremacy.
After a couple of decades, he starts hearing thunder, then:
the cry of a wolf from somewhere in the direction of Hyde Park.
Did Clarke recall Smith's sonnet from Huish's Grammar School?
By the end of the week he knew that the animals of the north were on the move. Once he saw a reindeer running southward, pursued by a pack of silent wolves, and sometimes in the night there were sounds of deadly conflict. He was amazed that so much life still existed in the white wilderness between London and the Pole. Now something was driving it southward, and the knowledge brought him a mounting excitement. He did not believe that these fierce survivors would flee from anything save Man.
This , of course, is only the momentary lessening of dramatic tension before the climatic conclusion:
As a watcher from the walls of some threatened fortress might have seen the first sunlight glinting on the spears of an advancing army, so in that moment Professor Millward knew the truth. The air was crystal-clear, and the hills were sharp and brilliant against the cold blue of the sky. They had lost almost all their snow. Once he would have rejoiced at that, but it meant nothing now.

Overnight, the enemy he had forgotten had conquered the last defences and was preparing for the final onslaught. As he saw that deadly glitter along the crest of the doomed hills, Professor Millward understood at last the sound he had heard ad-vancing for so many months. It was little wonder he had dreamed of mountains on the march.

Out of the north, their ancient home, returning in triumph to the lands they had once possessed, the glaciers had come again.
That appeared in 1949, likely to have derived in part from experiencing the horrendous winter of 1946-7. Of course, in the aftermath of the War, dystopias were the norm. Clarke predates The Day After Tomorrow by a full half-century (though, the last time Malcolm used the story, that connexion was shrewdly proposed by the anorectal agony in the back-row).

For the full effect, though, of Smith's image, we need another visual.

Now what comes to mind? Ah! yes!

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