Monday, July 19, 2010

Evocative, rather than descriptive

Ozymandias by Percy Bysse Shelley

I don't have a favorite poem. I don't tend to have favorite things generally; I'm just that way. However, Ozymandias is as close as any.

One of the things I admire about this poem is its subtlety. The transience of earthly glories is a common Romantic theme, and often presented pretty heavy-handedly: for a really atrocious example, read further down in the Wiki linked above, and look at the sonnet on the same subject by Smith...

Shelley frames the poem by introducing and immediately discarding a narrator and then introducing and immediately discarding a secondary narrator, the traveller ("I met a traveller..."). Note that the traveller describes the statue completely without reference to her- or himself: instead of "I saw a statue", we're simply told that it exists, standing in the desert. We're not even sure if the traveller saw this monument or was told about it.

And yet someone apparently looked hard at that ruined statue, and inferred a great deal about Ozymandias and the unknown sculptor. Because the interlocutor remains unspecified, we as readers experience his, her or its insights directly rather than as the insights of someone named "I." What might have seemed a distancing device (receding layers of narration) paradoxically brings the poem closer, immersing us in it without intermediary.

For a contemporaneous example in a similar vein, but one that makes strong use of the narrative "I", consider Keats' On first looking into Chapman’s Homer.

Shelley's device would be difficult to pull off nowadays: a modern editor would likely want to hear more about the narrator (either narrator) as he or she interacts emotionally with the scene. I consider Ozymandias an excellent example of a poem that evokes emotions without actually describing them. What does the traveller feel about the statue? We're not told. What do you feel about the statue?


I read this story on a rising flood.
It said: They come, year after year, their sides
all fat with roe and milt. Long ocean dreams
are interrupted by breakwater thunder,
surf that fills the river-mouth with mud.
The salmon come in with the rising tide
blood-called to breed a thousand miles upstream
where spawn-spent bodies drift to stillness under
trembling aspens. Life embraces death.
Grizzly bears and foxes come to feed
on silver corpses light as aspen leaves.
White water, bubbled full of mountain breath
brings oxygen to strands of amber beads,
the eggs that dream of salt and crashing waves.

--for Big Tent's prompt: talk about your favorite poem
Collection available! Knocking from Inside


Joyce Ellen Davis said...

Oh, Tiel, this just takes my breath away... I want to think like you when I grow up!

Anonymous said...

I like the corpses light as aspens

Anonymous said...

Beautiful poem. Especially like:

"blood-called to breed a thousand miles upstream" that finds resonance in the last line:
"the eggs that dream of salt and crashing waves." Very, very well done.


Anonymous said...

This poem deserves to be read again and again. It is beautiful.

Anonymous said...

This poem deserves to be read again and again. It is beautiful.

Anonymous said...

I love 'blood-called'.

Derrick said...

Beautifully written. Having done a sonnet myself, I feel rather like Mr Smith at the moment!

Anonymous said...

That last line is so lovely--it feels like one of those inevitable lines that just chink into place at the end.

Mary said...

Ozymandias is a favorite poem of mine as well. In fact, your poem reminded me that years ago I did my own take-off on it...memories.
I liked yours very much. And how true that life embraces death..

Tumblewords: said...

Kokanee spawn here where a rushing creek meets the lake. This poem describes that scene with great form and verve. Truly beautiful.

Anonymous said...

i like "to feed on silver corpses"!

(and it was nice to meet you last weekend.)

Anonymous said...

What a splendid work. Especially liked "to feed on silver corpses" and "blood-called to breed." Lovely.