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Some Notes on “Ozymandias”

October 23, 2011

As printed in "Rosalind and Helen; a Modern Eclogue and Other Poems" (London: 1819). Click on the image to enlarge it. The notes are worth reading.

Percy Bysshe Shelley published his “Ozymandias” in The Examiner, edited by his friend Leigh Hunt, on January 11, 1818 (#524 of the journal). It appeared under the pen-name “Glirastes.” His friend Horace Smith published a sonnet on the same theme in The Examiner for February 1, 1818 (reprinted below). The following passage from Diodorus Siculus‘s Library of History (1.47) provided a source (there may have been others) for the poets:

Ten stades from the first tombs, [Hecataeus of Abdera] says, in which, according to tradition, are buried the concubines of Zeus, stands a monument of the king known as Osymandyas. At its entrance there is a pylon, constructed of variegated stone, two plethra in breadth and forty-five cubits high;  passing through this one enters a rectangular peristyle, built of stone, four plethra long on each side; it is supported, in place of pillars, by monolithic figures sixteen cubits high, wrought in the ancient manner as to shape; and the entire ceiling, which is two fathoms wide, consists of a single stone, which is highly decorated with stars on a blue field. Beyond this peristyle there is yet another entrance and pylon, in every respect like the one mentioned before, save that it is more richly wrought with every manner of relief; beside the entrance are three statues, each of a single block of black stone from Syene, of which one, that is seated, is the largest of any in Egypt, the foot measuring over seven cubits, while the other two at the knees of this, the one on the right and the other on the left, daughter and mother respectively, are smaller than the one first mentioned. And it is not merely for its size that this work merits approbation, but it is also marvellous by reason of its artistic quality and excellent because of the nature of the stone, since in a block of so great a size there is not a single crack or blemish to be seen. The inscription upon it runs: ‘King of Kings am I, Osymandyas. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works.’ There is also another statue of his mother standing alone, a monolith twenty cubits high, and it has three diadems on its head, signifying that she was both daughter and wife and mother of a king.

C. H. Oldfather prepared the foregoing translation for the Loeb Classical Library‘s 1933 edition of Diodorus (fl. 60-30 B.C.E.). He points out in a note that Diodorus relies, here, on an account given by Hecataeus of Abdera, a historian of the early third century B.C.E., and the author of an Aigyptiaka. “What Diodorus gives,” Oldfather indicates, “is no more than a paraphrase, not a quotation, of Hecataeus.” I do not know what translation Shelley read, or if he read it instead in the Greek (unlikely), or if he knew it by reputation. In Sites of exchange: European Crossroads and Faultlines, the Egyptologist Adriana Corrado points out that “Diodorus’s enthusiastic account of Ozymandias, who was clearly based on Rameses II, had been well-known since Poggio Bracciolini‘s Latin translation of 1472 (further popularised by Serlio in Book III of his treatise on architecture, which adds much on Egypt, including the 1530’s observations of the future Cardinal, Marco Grimani). In all versions, including Baldelli’s 1574 Italian version, the statement (presumably once in hieroglyphs) was printed in uppercase and highlighted: ‘I am Ozymandias, King of Kings, if anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass/see my works.’ Belzoni says that Frederik Ludvig Norden saw Abu Simbel [the site of two temples built by Ramses II in southern Egypt] but it is usually thought to have been discovered in 1813.”

Whatever the case, here’s Shelley’s sonnet on Ramses II/Ozymandias:

Percy Bysshe Shelley, portrait by Alfred Clint. 1819. Now in the National Portrait Gallery.

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.

This week, anyway, I find myself convinced that few other sonnets open with such a fine shot as this one: “I met a traveller from an antique land / Who said . . .” Full stop. Caesura in the first position of line two (uncommon in sonnets). Only the word “antique” rises, and it hardly, above the conversational, so clean and direct in its address is Shelley’s diction. He uses “antique” in the sense one associates with such lines as these: “The famous warriors of the anticke world” (Edmund Spenser: the Amoretti), and “The Senatours of th’ antique Rome” (Shakespeare: “Prologue” to act five of Henry the Fifth). “Antique” may strike our ears as a strange bit of diction here, but it certainly would not have so struck Shelley’s ears, or those of his readers. Shelley opens the sonnet right there on the lapel-seizing plane, so to speak, and he holds to it through to the end. Of the 111 words in the sonnet, 87 are monosyllabic: 78%. The verbs are for the most part dynamic or transitive or both. Only “stand,” “lies,” “remains,” “tell,” “appear,” “remains” and “stretch” are stative (as I believe the grammarians say). And the sonnet nicely makes dynamic what otherwise would function as a stative verb: “despair.” We were always to have looked on Ozymandias’s works and despaired; such was his sneering brag, as Shelley renders it. But his works long ago reached their expiration date; in short, their capacity to inspire despair had duration; it fell away. The Shelleyan irony is that the “mighty” may yet “despair” when looking on Ozymandias’s now un-seeable “works,” brought into the theater of the imagination by this sonnet—and despair not because they can’t hope to match either Ozymandias’s works or Shelley’s, but because their own “works,” whatever they may be, will wind up a colossal wreck (unlike Shelley’s, needless to say). So let’s call “despair,” here, stative and dynamic: it no longer works on us; and yet it does its work on us (at least it should). The events of recent days in the sands of Libya bear it all out.

Ramses II. One of four external seated statues at Abu Simbel.

The sonnet—what do we expect from our young rebel?—departs from tradition, rhyming: ABABACDCEDEFEF. That squares neither with the English nor the Italian conventions. Has any other sonnet ever taken the pattern ACDC for lines 5-8? Most remarkable to me is the ratio of sentence to line, where by “sentence” I mean an independent grammatical unit (not a string of words ending with a period). The shortest such element—the most fittingly stark such element—deploys three words: “Nothing beside remains.” The longest extends over forty-seven words.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 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. . .

The grammar and the sense, obscured somewhat by inversions of syntax, are easy enough to sort out: “Near those trunkless legs of stone lies a shattered visage, half sunk in the sands. The frown on it, its wrinkled lip, its sneer of cold command—all these things indicate [or ‘tell’] that the sculptor who fashioned the thing, who ‘mocked’ it up, understood perfectly well the passions animating his subject, Ozymandias, because they have survived, or outlived, both the sculptor and his subject [whose ‘heart’ fed the passions, etc.], and are now stamped on these lifeless stones.” “Mock” works in several senses: “to produce a mock-up of; to make as a replica or imitation, esp. for temporary show; to contrive, improvise” (O.E.D. 6c), and “to deceive or impose upon; to delude, befool; to tantalize, disappoint” (O.E.D. 1a). Also at work may be this sense, now obsolete: “To disappoint (a person) of something promised. Obs. rare” (O.E.D. 1b). Ozymandias’s sculptor did not make good on that inscription, and, for all we know, undertook the job with a spirit of Shelleyan impiety. And of course there is O.E.D. sense 3a: “To scoff or jeer at; to hold up to ridicule; to address with scorn or derision; to deride, taunt.” Here, Shelley puts his “hand” in alongside the sculptor’s. His sonnet mocks Ozymandias up again only to mock him down. Anyway, to wind up this discussion of the sonnet’s peculiar form I note simply that I find seven “sentences” (in the sense I give above) laid into these fourteen lines, varying in length, as I say, from three to forty-seven words. If, as Robert Frost would have it, the measure of a poet’s skill in part has to do with varying relation of sentence to line or stanza, Shelley knocks this sonnet out of the park: clean in diction, even to the point of starkness; richly varied in its unfolding sentences; recalcitrant in its relation to the tradition of the sonnet; and wonderfully facile in its adaptation of that motto (“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair” is better by far than Horace Smith’s “I am great OZYMANDIAS, / The King of Kings; this mighty City shows / The wonders of my hand”).

Anyhow, the real matter of the poem is hearsay, an indirect quotation of yet another quoted text (the inscription). Some editors set the words attributed to the traveler within quotation marks, but the point holds, of course: what Ozymandias caused to be inscribed on his likeness comes to us as a text within a text (the traveler’s report) within a third text (Shelley’s sonnet). An obvious enough point, but nonetheless worth calling to mind again. “I met a man who’d read a sonnet that said, ‘I met a traveler from an antique land who said,'” and so on. The involution of the inscription diminishes it; as delivered in this sonnet, by this sonnet, it as an echo of an echo of an inscription now become an epitaph. All of which makes null, or moot, the imperative on which the inscription turns: “Look on my works . . .” The speaker of the sonnet hasn’t seen them; he hasn’t even seen the words (or hieroglyphic script) that evoked them. The traveler he quotes hasn’t seen the “works” either, because, of course, they are nowhere to be seen.

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  . Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Shelley dispatches with all of what’s on record in Diodorus (if he ever read Diodorus closely): the pylons, the peristyle, the monoliths, the statues of mother and daughter, etc. Diodorus’s account was then 18 centuries out of date anyway, and itself depended on an account two centuries out of date when he set pen to papyrus. Shelley could not have known what actually lay about the ruin, or even what shape the ruin was in. The “hearsay” status of the report we’re given spares him the responsibility of accuracy on this head, and accuracy was never the point anyhow. Shelley can simply will it all away, as he would have willed away the works of the “mighty” of his own day, if he could have by taking thought. This tale is one he deeply wants to tell (and also to be told by travelers from antique lands, in fact from all lands). As I say, I do not know how much Shelley knew of Diodorus (e.g., that he’d depended on an earlier Greek historian, Hecataeus of Abdera, etc.), or of the discoveries at Abu Simbel. But Anne Janowitz and other writers far more steeped in the affair than I am have affirmed that Diodorus is the most important source. This source was, in turn, likely mediated by a flowering of late 18th century and early 19th century travel accounts (available in French and English) occasioned, in part, by the Napoleonic Wars. What have we got in “Ozymandias,” then? A report of a report derived from a report of a report, mediated by still more reports, and affected, in ways hard to specify, by the acquisition of Egyptian artifacts by the British Museum. King George III, if Shelley had his way with him, would stand in the same relation to his subjects: the ghostly antecedent of a series of endlessly recessive tales, all of which tend toward colossal ruin. We have his word on it in “Sonnet: England in 1819“:

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king,
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn, mud from a muddy spring . . .

But to return to “Ozymandias,” and its last few lines. I can understand how sands might be “level”; all the more fitting given that Ozymandias’s works have themselves been “leveled.” But “lone” is a slightly unusual locution here, imparting to the sands, as it does, the “affect” an onlooker may be supposed to feel. Of course, the meaning is also quite simple: the scene is a depopulated one (a “lone” one)—nothing there but the sands and that colossal wreck; or rather, to be precise about it, nothing there but “the decay of that colossal wreck,” the “wreck” itself having been taken up into a prepositional phrase. Four adjectives modify “sands,” not merely the two just mentioned: boundless, bare, lone, and level (what-do-ye-know, folks: a pair of b’s and one of l’s). There’s fine extravagance in this—as if in mockery of the extravagance of the claim that old inscription makes.

Many a reader has noted a highly conspicuous irony in the sonnet, one I believe Shelley enjoys: namely, that it immortalizes the mortality of Ozymandias and his ruins, and also the brag inscribed on them (as paraphrased so memorably by Shelley). The tradition of English sonneteers purporting to imbue their subjects with immortality reaches back to the 16th century. And what little most of us know of Ozymandias we know from having read Shelley, his great refractor, who avails himself of the time-defying pretension of great sonnets to memorialize a king in ways that king would detest. Of course, this only affirms what Shelley intimates in bringing his “Ode to the West Wind” to its conclusion.

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

Poetry truly is consequential, Shelley would have us believe, in his high office—more so (in some sense) than the “works” of potentates. We needn’t acknowledge poets the unacknowledged legislators of the world—as Shelley puts it in his “Defence of Poetry“—to concede as much.

Still, for my part, I should like to light upon a sonnet reporting the report of a traveler from the Antique Land of Literary Follies—over which the Ozymandian shade of Ezra Pound presides—that someone called “Shelley” once said: “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair: Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Really? It is almost as if, in “Ozymandias,” Shelley not merely “frames” for mockery that old brag of the King of Kings, but also appropriates it for the poet and for poetry.

Great Temple of Ramses II (left) and Small Temple of his wife Nefertari (right). In Abu Simbel, Nubia, southern Egypt.

N.B.: For details as to what Shelley could have known about Ozymandias & his ruins, cf. Anne Janowitz, “Shelley’s Monument to Ozymandias” (Philological Quarterly 63.4): 477–491. The manuscript of the poem is in the Bodleian Library: MS Shelley e.4, fol. 85r. Cf. also the facsimile edited by Paul Dawson, The Bodleian Shelley Manuscripts, gen. ed. D. H. Reiman (1988). Textual scholars derive additional readings from Percy Bysshe Shelley, Rosalind and Helen: A Modern Eclogue; with Other Poems (London: C. and J. Ollier, 1819). For an image of an autograph fair copy of the manuscript of the sonnet (held at the Bodelian), click here. For a careful reading of the poem, with particular attention to prosody, visit this page at Poem Shape. Following is Horace Smith’s sonnet on the same theme:

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,
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 fragments huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
12 Comments leave one →
  1. November 2, 2011 9:26 AM

    Now, finally, I get a chance to comment. I’ve been working on a separate writing project. I love this post. I’ll be linking to it in my own, and send some readers this way. I especially liked the following observation:

    “The Shelleyan irony is that the “mighty” may yet “despair” when looking on Ozymandias’s now un-seeable “works,” brought into the theater of the imagination by this sonnet—and despair not because they can’t hope to match either Ozymandias’s works or Shelley’s, but because their own “works,” whatever they may be, will wind up a colossal wreck (unlike Shelley’s, needless to say).”

    However, I *was* disappointed (but only in a teasing way) that you didn’t put any skin in the game when you wrote:

    “both the sculptor and his subject [whose ‘heart’ fed the passions, etc.]”

    Come on now! How do you interpret that line? Here it is:

    “The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed…”

    If you’ve read the comment section after my own analysis, you’ll see that there are at least four distinct and, so it seems, equally valid ways to interpret this line.

    Lastly, you take a much more historical approach, and the poem needed that. I’ll be glad to link to your post, in addition to Wikipedia’s. Yours is much better.

    • November 2, 2011 11:50 PM

      Hi Patrick. And thank you. I’ll be laying in a link to your essay on the sonnet, too.

      As for the grammar of the lines in question, I take it as below (first the sentence itself):

      . . . . . . . .. . . .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:

      The sculptor read the passions well; these passions, now conveyed by that wrinkled lip, that frown, and that sneer, “survive” [“outlive,” a transitive verb, here taking two objects] both the “hand that mocked them [up]” (that is, the hand of the sculptor) and the “heart that fed [them]” (Ozymandias’ heart). In other words, I think the last line is elliptical, with “them” implied after “fed” in parallel to “mocked them.” Mocked them, fed them. Etc.

      That’s how I read it, and I find it hard to read it in the admittedly other possible ways. I read the lines aloud & my voice feels most comfortable working on the assumption of the grammar as above construed.

      Many thanks again, Patrick, for your comment, and for the care w/ which in your own essay you treat all elements prosodical.

      Best,
      Mark

      • January 10, 2012 8:11 PM

        I was just noodling around. The post on Ozymandias continues to receive the most hits. I was curious to read your post again and your response. I also noticed that you used a copy of the poem that differs from mine. You have a comma between “them, and the heart”. I wondered if this was original or an editorial interpolation. Fortunately, the MS of the poem is online:

        Turns out that the comma is original. Hard to say whether this favours your interpretation (as well as others), but it might make it more likely. I’m going to mention this at my own blog.

  2. January 11, 2012 12:03 AM

    Thanks, Patrick. I’d not seen this image of Shelley’s manuscript and will add a link to it in the entry on “Ozymandias.” I can see how the comma might favor the reading I favor of the grammar––which as you point out is not an unusual reading, and hardly unique to me. (As I suppose I indicated, I really can’t feel comfortable reading it any other way when I read it aloud, which is a kind of test for me.)

    Your having revisited the matter caused me to notice that the punctuation of the text I reprint here differs slightly from that of the Bodelian manuscript, though not on the point in question.

    Much gratitude as always. I’ve been lazy about my web-logging, owing to travel and other things. But I hope soon to be back at it w/ two entries, one on James Welch’s “Winter in the Blood” (having to do with prose style) and another on Bierce’s “What I Saw of Shiloh.” After which, back to some poems.

    • January 11, 2012 10:48 AM

      I just added some more notes to my post. It seems that the MS copy is an earlier or original version. For instance, rather than write:

      And on the pedestal these words appear:

      The MS I linked to writes:

      And on the pedestal, this legend clear:

      There was obviously more than one version of this poem. At Google books you can find an edition of Shelley’s poems procured by Harry Buston Forman. He claims to take his printing straight from their sources. His copy, like the original that I found, omits the comma in the eighth line. However, I’m guessing that the omitted comma represents Shelley’s final thoughts and that modern editions that include the comma represent editorial interpolations. So, where does that leave us? As I added in my post, Shelley must have had second thoughts about the line’s punctuation (as well as other lines). Whether or not he saw that change as altering the meaning of the line remains conjecture.

  3. January 11, 2012 11:02 AM

    Hi Patrick,

    I’ll take a peek into a good variorum edition at school––assuming we have one, which I believe we do––& see what I find. “Accidentals”––as the textual scholars used to call them––in early 19th century texts may not bear so much weight as we 20th century folk suppose. Wait! 21st century. (Then again, the editing of early 19th century texts is not my bailiwick.)

    Thanks again. All very interesting.

    • January 11, 2012 11:21 AM

      I’ve learned to only trust variorum editions so far. The trouble is that, as you write, some textual “scholars” don’t give “Accidentals” all that much weight and so don’t mention them – I’ve found this to be especially true of Donne. But the opinions of textual scholars don’t interest me so much. I want to see the MS. Beethoven used to erase his manuscripts clean through when he couldn’t decide whether he liked “the look” of 16th notes or 32nd notes. I think it’s more likely that these Accidentals carried less weight to textual scholars than to poets. 🙂

  4. January 11, 2012 8:26 PM

    Amusing! Thanks, Patrick, as always. My dad, a great lover of Beethoven, would to see those old scores too.

    Well, as a sometime textual scholar myself, I can say this for good variorum editions: they ought to (anyway) lay before the reader all the evidence available at the time the edition was published. You or I may quibble with what the editor chooses to favor in the text of the poem as rendered on the page, but the editor will have given us the evidence (in notes or back-matter) necessary to quibble with him.

    Interesting matter, though, isn’t it?––punctuation in printed texts that predate “modern” (by which I mean 20th century, and for that matter, post-1930 or so) opinion about such things as “accidentals,” rationale’s for “copy-text,” etc., standards of punctuation.

    John Clare! Now, there’s a poet whose manuscripts are a nightmare for any editor (for his first editors, too).

    There is a certain sense in which post-typewriter readers (some of them anyway) attach more significance to punctuation, layout, etc, than did pre-typewriter writers. (I’m using “typewriter” as a kind of “shorthand,” let’s say––funny how these old techniques & technologies so readily become figurative.) Once writing was mechanized at the personal level (so to speak), things changed a bit. Ideas as to these matters also alter as ideas about genius, “authority,” and so on alter (for poets as well as for scholars).

    Donne is an interesting case given that (and correct me here: haven’t looked into the matter in a long while) almost none of his poems survive in autograph manuscripts. If the late 16th- & early 17th-century had anything like “standards” or protocols” as to spelling & punctuation, we might fall back on those as at least one available “background” against which to assess contemporary texts of his poems, but the period had none.

    Another interesting problem: editing such things as Frost’s lectures from the only surviving sources (audio recordings); or, in certain other cases (cf. the notes to “Education By Poetry” in my edition of the Collected Prose), texts where punctuation is supplied by other hands in physical documents on which RF himself then went to work with his fountain pen. RF relied on several typists during his working life. Post-1938 he often dictated letters & drafts of essays. Did he dictate punctuation while so doing? The record is silent.

    You probably know the controversies that rightly surround Lathem’s edition of RF’s poetry (where punctuation was changed in hundreds of instances).

    Why am I mentioning all this? It’s early in the morning & my thoughts are a cloud & the whole business is interesting & I thank you for bringing it into this string of “comments.”

    Maybe we can keep it up and gather all of what’s known (as to textual matters) that bears on “Ozymandias” in the two things we’ve done about the sonnet.

  5. January 12, 2012 2:41 PM

    //Interesting matter, though, isn’t it?//

    It is. A change in punctuation can, in some cases, considerably shift the meaning of a line, and Shelley’s poem is an example (I think). The first time I started analysing poems for the blog, I would just copy and paste the poem for another site. I don’t know if my experience is representative, but I find that 9 poems out of ten (taken from the web) have missing punctuation, missing words, and even missing lines! So I almost didn’t catch myself when I started pondering why Frost wrote iambic tetrameter in the midst of blank verse. After that near humiliation, I began consulting printed text. Then I examined a couple of Donne’s sonnets. Lo and behold, the editors (Norton Edition) left out crucial punctuation and elision! Fortunately, I have a two volume Oxford edition of Donne’s poems that is about as close to the originals as I can find (and faithfully reports on any variants). I’ve really gotten so that I’d almost rather see the manuscript. Seeing to what degree “editors” alter texts (and meaning) with nary a footnote was a real eye opener. That said, knowing this just adds to the joy of the hunt.

    As to John Clare, I don’t have a good edition of his poetry. If there is, it’s probably out of my price range.

    //If the late 16th- & early 17th-century had anything like “standards” or protocols” as to spelling & punctuation, we might fall back on those as at least one available “background” against which to assess contemporary texts of his poems, but the period had none.//

    I’ve been reading, off and one, Joseph Lowenstien’s book “Ben Jonson and Possessive Authorship”. He goes some way toward identifying the new, at the time, idea of authorial integrity. My impression remains that individual 16th & 17th century poets established their own standards and were fairly consistent.

    //Maybe we can keep it up and gather all of what’s known (as to textual matters) that bears on “Ozymandias” in the two things we’ve done about the sonnet.//

    I’d love to. If I find out anything new, I’ll let you know. I *am* familiar with the controversy surrounding Lathem’s text. Similarly, Faggen’s edition of Robert Frost’s Notebooks was all but crucified by William Logan [Our Savage Art, p. 300]. Logan’s critique set me back on my heels. Every once in a while I get the stuffing knocked out of me – humbled – watching Logan dismantle Faggan was one of those times. Logan must have had access to Frost’s manuscripts but, even so, his erudition was deadly.

    • January 12, 2012 9:02 PM

      Hi Patrick & thanks for this exchange––

      Yes, “a change in punctuation can, in some cases, considerably shift the meaning of a line, and Shelley’s poem is an example (I think)”––or rather, I agree in principle, though not in the case of this particular line, as you will have discerned by the way I read it above. I still have a hard time reading the line as terminating in something other than a fairly ordinary kind of elision “the heart that fed [them].” But I like the way you make the mater controversial: very productive to be sure.

      The amount of weight one ought to accord punctuation *as such* in poetry (or prose) written prior to the early 20th century seems a matter rather hard to decide. Sometimes it “signifies,” so to speak, and as often not. Even in manuscripts. Take Dickinson. The sheer ubiquity of her “dashes,” or whatever we ought to call them, and also of her capitalizations, seems to me rather to diminish the significance we ought to attach to any particular instance of the one or the other. The more important point (I think) is to grant at the outset that her habits of punctuation are as heterodox as her syntax and diction and themes often are: there you’ve got it––the whole package. The burden of proof, so far as I can tell anyway, lies with a reader who wishes to demonstrate that the dashes (or other “accidentals”) have local and peculiar significance as against the “general” one I just spoke of. Students often suppose that we ought to attach a good deal of importance to the fact that Dickinson capitalizes this or that word, and all I can say in reply is, “Well, I don’t really think so. Are we to do this with the thousands of other such capitals? And what of the possibility that she’s simply following the old conventions of 18th century typography?” And as for her dashes, I say: “Well, yes, they are unusual, but Dickinson still wrote sentences, and we have to read them as sentences, and the absence of periods, semicolons, etc., doesn’t relieve us of the task.” I’m guessing you more or less agree with me here. Cf. my reading of “The Soul selects her own Society —” within this web-log. There I discuss possible ways of construing, as sentences, the first four lines:

      // The Soul selects her own Society —
      Then — shuts the Door —
      To her divine Majority —
      Present no more —

      // Now, it is not possible grammatically to sever the first line from its successors in this stanza, which leads me to the second point I’d make: the grammar is equivocal, in that the stanza admits of several possible readings. We might read the stanza as follows (and here I will print it, for illustrative purposes, in sentence form): 1) “The soul selects her own society, then shuts the door. To her divine majority, present no more.” Or we might read it: 2) “The souls selects her own society, then shuts the door to her divine majority, present no more.” Or: 3) The soul selects her own society, then shuts the door to her divine majority. Present no more.” In examples 1 & 3 “present” is a verb, with the accent on the second syllable; in example 2, it is an adjective, with the accent on the first. So, how to decide? Because if I am to read the poem aloud, I must decide what to do with my voice. Dickinson’s eccentric punctuation, here, as in many another place, leaves more than one possibility open. In this case, however, textual evidence may help us resolve the problem, or even to decide it for good and all. On the manuscript, Dickinson offers two alternative readings in stanza one: “On” for “To” in line three, and “Obtrude” for “Present” in line four. “Obtrude” can only be a verb; its adjective form is “obtrusive.” So, if we take “obtrude” as readily exchangeable with “present”—that is to say, as a live alternative to “present”—then we should read “present” as a verb, not as an adjective. This would seem to exclude possibility #2 above from consideration, for in that sentence “present” is an adjective modifying “Soul,” which is no longer, well, “present” to the world—a sense which, though perfectly consonant with the poem, is grammatically impossible if we take “obtrude” as a genuinely live alternative. If we take into consideration both alternative readings—”On” for “To” and “Obtrude” for “Present”—then I think we are left with little choice but to hold to #1 above. That is to say, if “on” and “obtrude” are allowed somehow to decide the matter, the stanza must work as two sentences of two lines each. Prosody also supports this reading, insofar as the verb “present” is iambic—the poetic foot dominant in the poem—whereas the adjective “present” is trochaic. But of course, Dickinson’s prosody is often as vagrant, with respect to convention, as are her systems of punctuation and capitalization, and as is her thinking. So the matter must be left open, in prospect, even as we must decide the matter one way or another when reading the poem aloud (so that we know, among other things, whether to say “présent” or “presént,” where the diacritical mark indicates stress). //

      Here’s the link to the entry: http://wp.me/pEoNE-HM

      Anyhow, Patrick, you know as well as anyone (and I say so on the fine evidence of your readings at PoemShape) how much a matter of tact this is. With punctuation as with prosody we can fall into what I’ve only lately (and via a link in a comment to your web-log) learned to call “the enactment fallacy.” Don’t know how I’ve missed that term before, because I’ve always wanted it (or else another) to name a thing I’ve always been highly wary of: the not uncommon abuse, in readings of poetry, of Pope’s suggestion (in the Essay on Criticism) that “sound should seem an echo to the sense.” O, how much tediousness we’ve had to countenance, in writing and in teaching, under that license. The fallacy I have in mind is, of course, the fallacy of suggesting (where inappropriate) that lines or poetry, in their movements & sounds, somehow “enact” what they describe. That’s why I always try, at least, to identity what I prefer to call “significant form” (form that signifies something) from form that is essentially “architectural” (though certainly not without interest as such). I ride that hobby horse in “What I Want as a Teacher of Poetry” (also in the pages of this web-log: you’ll see it at the top of the home page).

      Do I want *unquestionably* significant form? Well, I start with George Herbert & take him as my touchstone.

      (Or, to take a trivial but funny example, read Thomas Randolph’s poem on the loss of his little finger: when he tells he no longer can count five on that hand, he does it in a tetrameter line––the only tetrameter in an otherwise pentameter context. Easy effect? Yes. Tossed off with the cavalier poise of a fine minor 17th century poet? Of course.)

      But all this is no news to you, Patrick, and you’re careful about your business always.

      That book about Ben Jonson sounds interesting. I really should get it. Of course he was among the first serious writers to think of himself as authoring books (in ways we recognize readily now). Herbert was another, with The Temple, even if he didn’t live to see it in print.

      I close with an example of what I take to be the enactment fallacy, from a widely circulated introduction to twentieth century American poetry (I won’t name names since I quote it with disapproval). I, for my part, would never discuss “Birches” in this way. I cringe a bit reading the following:

      // “The next three lines focus not on the transcendent beauty of the scene but on the oppressive weight of the ice:

      They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
      And they seem not to break, though once they are bowed
      So low for long, they never right themselves:

      // “Here again, Frost makes skilled use of versification to enhance his description: the lines are lengthened (eleven and twelve syllables instead of ten) and they depart radically from the iambic meter of the opening lines. Frost uses sound to make us feel the heaviness of the ice-covered trees in the drawn-out vowels of words like ‘dragged,’ ‘bracken,’ ‘load,’ ‘bowed,’ and ‘low.’ The downward movement of these lines concludes with an evocative simile comparing the trailing branches of the trees to ‘girls on hands and knees that throw their hair / Before them over their heads.'” //

      Well, well. Really? Do I “feel the heaviness of the ice-covered trees” when RF departs from a more regular iambic line? Nope. I simply do not. I think we have an example here of a “somatic” metaphor wrongly applied to a reading experience.

      By the way, and on another head, J. Bate’s edition of John Clare isn’t bad, I think, and it’s cheap.

      Still, it is essential to consult the Powell & Robinson multi-volume edition (done for Oxford UP), if one is interested in understanding the extraordinary textual problems Clare’s manuscripts present (Bate discusses this in his biography of the poet, too).

      Alas, the full Robinson & Powell edition costs several hundred bucks.

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  1. Quid plura? | “Everybody’s coming, leave your body at the door…”
  2. Shelley’s Sonnet: Ozymandias « PoemShape

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