Smith versus Shelley: A Tale of Two Poems

Yesterday, I co-led a poetry discussion group at one of the area retirement communities, something I’ve done for the last few years. It’s been a really interesting experience–there’s so much to learn and discuss about even mediocre poems, and I enjoy hearing the participants share their ideas about the poems, as well as the stories and memories these poems evoke.

I choose the poems at random, with very little rhyme (pardon the pun) or reason to my choice. One of the poems yesterday was Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” Yes, I proffered that old chestnut to the group, even though I’d read it thousands of times and have taught it in many classes. I just wanted another look at it, I guess, and it’s fun to do that with company. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was my co-leader bringing in another poem on the same exact topic, written at the same time.

It happens that Shelley had a friend, the prosaically named Horace Smith, and the two of them engaged in a sonnet writing contest, on the agreed-upon subject of Ancient Egypt and, presumably, Rameses II, also known as Ozymandias. We remember Shelley’s poem: every anthology of 19th-century British literature probably contains it. However, Smith’s sonnet is largely forgotten. In fact, I’ll offer a true confession here: despite having taught Brit lit for decades, I’d not heard of Smith’s version until a couple of days ago.

It turns out that Smith was himself an interesting fellow. He wrote poetry, but was not averse to making money, unlike his younger friend Shelley. Smith was a stock-broker, and made a good living, while also, according to Shelley, being very generous with it. He sounds like a generally good guy, to be honest, something which Shelley aspired to be, but was really not. For all intents and purposes, Shelley was a masterful poet but a real asshole on a personal level, and a bit of an idiot to boot. (What kind of a fool goes sailing in a boat that he didn’t know how to operate, in a storm, when he didn’t even know how to swim?) Smith knew how to make and keep friends as well as money, two things that Shelley was not very good at, by all accounts.

At any rate, I thought it might be interesting to compare the two poems. Of course, we assume Shelley’s poem will be better: it’s the one that is in every anthology of 19th-Century British literature, after all, while I–with a Ph.D. in the subject, for whatever that’s worth–didn’t even know of the existence of Smith’s poem until a few days ago. But maybe, just maybe, there’s something valuable in the stockbroker’s poem that has been missed–and wouldn’t that make a fine story in and of itself?

So here are the two poems, first Shelley’s, and then Smith’s.

Ozymandias (Shelley)

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.”

Ozymandias (Smith)

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 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.

Now, I’d say Shelley definitely has the advantage in terms of poetic language, as well as the narrative situation. His words are sibilant and flowing, and it’s a stroke of genius to make the story come from not the speaker of the poem, but from a traveler from an antique land; it makes the scene seem even more authentic. The alliteration in the last two lines (“boundless” and “bare” as well as “lone” and “level”) is a deft touch as well.

I’d also say that Shelley’s choice of the half shattered face is much better than Smith’s. There’s something much more poetic about a sneering face, even if it’s a half of a face, than a gigantic leg. There’s no way on earth Smith could have made a gigantic leg sound poetic, and that hampers the poetic feel of his sonnet, which is a bit of a shame.

Or is it?

Perhaps Smith wasn’t going for poetic feel here at all. In fact, I’d argue that he definitely wasn’t thinking along the same lines Shelley was. There are obvious similarities between the two poems. We still get the empty site, the desolation of the “forgotten Babylon” that powers so much of Shelley’s version, but it turns out that Smith is interested in something completely different. Where Shelley’s poem comments on the nature of arrogance, a human pride that ends in an ironic fall, Smith’s presents the reader with a different kind of irony. His version is much grander. In fact, it’s a cosmic irony that Smith is grappling with here, as the poem comments on the inevitable rise and fall of human civilization. What I find astounding is that in 1818, just as England was beginning its climb up to the pinnacle of world dominance for the next two centuries, Smith was able to imagine a time when the world he knew would be in tatters, with nothing remaining of the biggest city on earth, save as a hunting ground for the presumably savage descendants of stockbrokers like himself. Smith’s imagination was far more encompassing that Shelley’s, given this kind of projection into the far future.

All told, Shelley’s poem is probably the better one: it’s more quotable, after all, and no matter how much I love Smith’s message and projection into the future, he just doesn’t have the choice of words and rhythm that Shelley does. But need we really limit ourself to just one of these poems, anyway? I’d say we’ve gleaned about as much as we can from Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” Perhaps ours is an age in which we can appreciate Smith’s vision of a far distant future. Empires rise and fall, waters ebb and flow, and civilizations come and go. Smith, with his Hunter coursing through what was once London, paints this idea just as well as Shelley does with his decayed Wreck. There’s room for both of these poems in our literary canon.