by Percy Bysshe 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 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.
Whew. Shelley just does it for me. I met a traveller from an antique land? What an amazingly seductive opening. Be still, my beating heart.
Sometimes I forget that my first love growing up was poetry. Though I had dual majors in college, I was an English Lit major at heart. Politics was fun, and stimulating, and, well, practical. But I reveled in the literature course work. Who wouldn’t – homework consisted of reading. Poetry, the classics – my battered, dog-earned, written upon Norton’s Anthology of English Literature was my most prized possession. It still is.
It all started with Tennyson. Alfred Lord, to be exact. Who wouldn’t love the imagery, the absolute desolation of his powerful words?
When I was a little girl, I used to sneak into my parent’s room, to their bookshelf and read. One of the first things I discovered was my mom’s book of poetry. I sat on the floor on the other side of their bed, the door to the hall half closed, blocking me from sight. I was a sneak thief, stealing little moments of influence.
It was early on when I discovered it. The work so compelling, so overwhelming that I snuck in the bedroom as often as I could to read it again and again.
He clasps the crags with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls:
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt, he falls.
Sigh. What is it about this piece that devastates me so? I’ve never really been able to put my finger on the why. But it opened the door to who I am today. As a little girl, something in my very core shifted the day I read this poem. I wanted to do that. I wanted to find a way to devastate a reader. I wanted to create the words that would blow some other little girl away. It was an epiphany. I started writing.
My parents, of course, knew I was rooting around in their world. They never dissuaded me, only encouraged me. I think it tickled them, their towheaded tomboy in love with words. I read everything I could, tried my hand at writing. Found a vocation. An all-consuming vacuum to get lost in, over, and over, and over. Words.
Quick fast forward through college. I tried my hand at the Business school, but did horribly. The only class I succeeded in that year was English. So I, ahem, transferred schools. But I had to take a semester off, so I worked on a political campaign. Got bit by another bug. When I enrolled at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, I declared two majors, Politics and English Lit. The politics was fun for a long time, but my romantic soul got too disillusioned to continue in the field. Where did that leave me? Well, Norton’s Anthology was on the bookshelf.
Not to give anything away, but ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS has some of my favorite poems on the pages. Just not the way you’d imagine.
Where did all this come from, you ask? I was up late watching "Byron" (as in George, Lord) last night, which led me to my anthology, and the bookmarked page for Ozymandias, by Byron's good friend, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Good old Percy. Loved him. Loved Ozymandias. It made me remember the moment in college when I read it and felt that same tingle of devastation that I’d had so many years before when I read The Eagle. Sometimes, a short piece of art is just as good as an ode, you know?
I read Oz today, and my heart filled up with that indescribable love again. I forget my roots too often. I labor over my words when I should read the Romantics – learn how to write, how to reach, how to influence all over again.
Thanks for indulging my trip down memory lane. I think Norton and I have a date.