"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Ozymandias Revisited Redux

Ozymandias Revisited Redux
An Answer, Finally

In between the falsetto cries of the loons at Lower Summit Lake one night, I heard the mournful wail of a train. I stood up and looked around, wondering about its source.

I was a good ways from any railroad tracks, with a dozen or more tall mountains in between, so the noise had to be coming from the little black car that had just zipped past on the highway. Don’t ask what kind of car. They all look the same anymore, unlike the cars of my youth when those of us who lusted after a car of our own and the freedom it promised, could rattle off the year, make and model of any vehicle at a glance. Anyway, it was a black car.

Then, suddenly, in one of those shifts my brain is partial to, I knew the answer to a question I’ve been asked many times, and thus far had been unable to answer. “Where,” they ask, “do you get the ideas for your stories?” Of course, I thought. Loons on the lake and a train whistle where there are no trains. That’s it. That's the answer.


Way back in the pre-Paleolithic Age when I was in high school, my English teacher passed out mimeographed pages of an assignment.

Mimeograph, to those of you who haven’t yet discovered the wonders of Medicare and doctors who opt out of the penurious program, pre-dates Xerox photocopies and computer printers. It was a duplicating process used by teachers to mass produce lessons. The resulting pages were light purple in color and smelled of the alcohol used in the inking process. Legal sniffing, school-offered buzzes. It gave me headaches.

Anyway, eventually the “take one, pass them back” pile of pages reached me, and I scanned the fuzzy printing to see what this quiz was all about. Her instructions were brief: compare and comment on the two poems.

The first was “Ozymandias” 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 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.”

The second, written by Morris Bishop, was entitled, “Ozymandias Revisited.” The two poems were identical, except for the final lines in the last stanza of Bishop’s .

They read:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Also the names of Emory P. Gray,
Mr. and Mrs. Dukes, and Oscar Baer
Of 17 West 4th St., Oyster Bay.”

I puzzled over the two poems. I didn’t appreciate poetry then, at age 15, and if I recall correctly, I took the writing quite literally and totally missed Shelley’s metaphor of mankind’s conceit, and the temporary nature of his institutions.

Bishop’s was beyond me. I remember thinking thoughts along the line of “from the sublime to the prosaic.” Only a couple in the class “got it.”

“It” was that Bishop’s last lines quoted the graffiti that visitors to the site of Ozymandias’ statue had written upon its base, and spoke eloquently of the need of humans to immortalize themselves.

I have forgotten much in my lifetime, but that alcohol-reeking mimeographed page of sonnets lives forever. I was chagrined at being fooled by something that was so obvious once I was “clued in.”

She gave us another unusual assignment, except this one was offered as subtly as possible. As she lectured away from her place at the blackboard (or greenboard as it were), a stranger entered the classroom and walked to the rear of the room, lingered a while, then left. I was torn between curiosity and listening to the teacher.

After the stranger left, the teacher stopped her lecture.

“Write a page,” she said, “about what you saw when that person entered the classroom.”

Uh, oh, I thought. Damned if I do and damned if I don’t. Should I reveal as much as I had seen, and let the teacher know I hadn’t been paying attention to her? Or, should I tell all, showing off my powers of observation?

I did both, jotting down some of the teacher’s words that I had paid attention to, and interspersing them with my observations of the stranger’s appearance, clothing, and actions. Plus, I offered various theories as to the stranger’s arrival, combining the whole into a short story with much imagination and creative license.

Some things we are taught disappear as quickly as the instructor’s voice falls silent. Other lessons stay with us a lifetime. I don’t remember that teacher’s name right now, but I do remember her lessons

And therein are the answers to my friends’ questions. I look for the obvious, the apply-hand-smartly-to-the-forehead, I-could-have-had-a-V-8 obvious. Then again, I also watch for the quiet stranger who walks into the room, and listen for train whistles where there are no trains.



  1. Ah, the quiet stranger called "Muse". Now I have to look up "Ozymandias" and become aquainted with Mr. Shelly's work.

    Ah2, the sweet memory of mimeograph. My mom was the school secretary and I remember her at the machine running those things off.

  2. Best yet. Powerfully wrapped.

    Got to go brew some coffee to get that mimeograph smell out of my nose. . .