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Monday, November 24, 2003

If you don't give a flying fuck about "Ozymandias," as you value your reason skip this post!

OK, well I might as well respond to the post by Aaron Haspel, purporting to show that my critical approach to "Ozymandias" is flawed by emotivism and that the poem itself is bad, trite, and banal. The animus behind his post puzzles me. It betrays such a triumphant tone, one of catching me out, of finding in my "Ozymandias" post an exquisite example of the fatuity to which "visceral" criticism (ajemajem) such as mine is liable.

Um, you've got to be kidding. So what?

As I've said before, I don't believe there's any virtue or attraction whatsoever in the chest-thumping discourse of the "Your poet's not as good as my poet" variety. If that's a game you like to play with literature, I'm sure you'll find plenty of nice boys to play it with. But I believe poems, like songs, images, and all objects of aesthetic attention are first and foremost pleasure-giving things. Critics can certainly describe some pleasures to be had and how they go about having them. But they can't inculcate the pleasures. Nor can they inculcate the taste for a critical method. After a certain amount of education, either you're moved viscerally by a poem or critical approach or you're not. Eventually you reach bedrock and your spade is turned. If you don't see how ridiculous you look jumping up and down with Jacques Barzun and shouting "This poem's bad! That poem's trite!," then I certainly can't show you. As Eddie Izzard sagely notes, on the far side of the circle of style there's a razor-fine line between cool and looking like a dickhead:
Over here, on this side of the circle, you've got looking like a dickhead. On this other [side], you've got sort of average kind of looking. Then you've got cool, hip and groovy . . . annnnnndddd . . . looking like a dickhead! The cutting edge of cool, hip, and groovy, is right at looking like a dickhead. But the looking-like-a-dickhead people don't realize they're right next to cool and groovy.

Let me underscore that I'm in no way saying that Aaron is looking like a dickhead. I'm just making an analogy. I'm saying only that looking like a dickhead is a difficult concept to convey to someone who doesn't get it, just as certain literary pleasures are difficult to convey to those who don't feel them.

Sadly, in order to be an informed reader of the response following, you should probably read Aaron's post and mine.

Here, for convenient reference, is the poem:
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."

My response to Aaron is basically this. On material questions of fact, he's wrong. Everything else he writes boils down to "aturdaturd."

To take Aaron's points one by one:

"Antique," with its orientalizing flavor, was mildly embarrassing in 1817; it is more embarrassing now. Edward Said would certainly object were he alive to do so.

How many ways can you be flat wrong in twenty-five words or fewer? "Antique" never did and does not now have an intrinsically "orientalizing flavor." If anything , it has a Greco-Roman (i.e., anti-orientalizing) one. It was not "mildly embarrassing in 1817." It is not embarrassing now. And Edward Said would have told anyone holding thus forth that he would be well advised to confirm the watertightness of his pronouncements before launching them.

"Antique," then as now, in its adjectival form means "old" and specifically "of or pertaining to the great civilizations of antiquity, especially those of Greece and Rome." That Shelley often used the word in this latter sense --for example, in Prometheus Unbound ("insurrection, which might make / Our antique empire insecure") and The Revolt of Islam ("The antique sculptured roof") won't perhaps persuade Aaron of its currency and respectability. But its frequent use by Wordsworth might --"when in the antique age of bow and spear" ("Rydal Chapel"), "As story says, in antique days" ("The Somnambulist"), "along the vista of the brook, / Where antique roots its bustling course o'erlook" ("An Evening Walk"), "two wheels she had / Of antique form" ("Michael"). Or will Keats do?-- "O brightest! though too late for antique vows, Too, too late for the fond believing lyre" ("Psyche"). Uses in English poetry are common enough through Elizabeth Barrett Browning ("I thought once how Theocritus had sung . . . And, as I mused it in his antique tongue") and A.E. ("They wove about the antique brow / A circlet of the heavenly air"). American authors using the word span the nineteenth century, including Emerson ("Give me insight into to-day, and you may have the antique and future worlds"), Hawthorne ("He soon manifested his familiarity with the ponderous and imposing machinery of antique physic"), Whitman ("powerful and populous communities of the antique world"), and James ("Henrietta Stackpole was struck with the fact that ancient Rome had been paved a good deal like New York, and even found an analogy between the deep chariot-ruts which are traceable in the antique street . . .").

Today, far from embarrassing, the classical-antiquity sense of "antique" is a staple of 20th-century academic writing. It's everywhere in the Cambridge History of English Literature ("The atheism of "Atalanta" . . . was partly veiled by its antique setting") and even in the latest edition of the Columbia Encyclopedia ("His dramas, written in Latin . . . dealing with antique or biblical subjects," "He painted picturesque scenes of antique subjects in a romantic mode").

Mister Usage, H. W. Fowler, cheerfully and unembarrassedly uses the word "antique" in 1908 in a passage (delectable irony) condemning the practice of using archaisms (and, worse, mixing them with modern slang):
. . . charmed with the discovery of some antique order of words, he selects a modern slang phrase to operate upon; he begins a sentence with ofttimes, and ends it with a grammatical blunder; aspires to albeit, and achieves howbeit.

H.W. Fowler (1858-1933). The King's English, 2nd ed.

And finally, with regard to his objecting to this use of "antique," it might be worth noting that in the last essay published in his lifetime Edward Said himself used it with no trace of embarrassment:
Literary modernism itself can be seen as a late-style phenomenon insofar as artists such as Joyce and Eliot appear to be out of their time altogether, returning to ancient myth or antique forms such as the epic or ancient religious ritual for their inspiration. The Nation 9/1/03

Ten years previously, Said had written:
As a visual, musical, and theatrical spectacle, Aida does a great many things for and in European culture, one of which is to confirm the Orient as an essentially exotic, distant, and antique place in which Europeans can mount certain shows of force. Culture and Imperialism, London: Vintage, 1993, 'The Empire at Work: Verdi's Aida,' pp.134

Nothing could be worse than "lone and level," unless it is "boundless and bare." Both pairs are applied to the sands; one would have more than sufficed.

This isn't criticism; it's waving your penis. Aaron implies that somehow these adjectives are redundant. But they aren't. Feel free to read them for yourself. They enumerate four significantly different qualities. Stretching these qualities over so many syllables has an accretive value. I think that's a good thing. Aaron doesn't. All I can say is if you don't like those lines, you certainly won't buy Burke's point about the sublimity of this famous passage of Milton's:

O'er many a dark and dreary vale
They passed, and many a region dolorous;
Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens, and shades of death,
A universe of death.

Aaron will tell you Milton should have clammed up after "They passed."

If you can't hear the musicality in the entire last sentence of the poem ("Round the decay / Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away."), from which Aaron excerpted his two peccant phrases, then there's nothing to be done for you. Sorry. But I can let you know (as if this would help) that the musicality derives from the sequence of repeated consonant and vowel sounds (well, duh). Notice the rhythmic and vocalic echoes of "Round the decay" in "boundless and bare." Notice the rhythmic chiasmus between "boundless and bare" and "lone and level" created by varying which of the four syllables in each phrase is the unstressed "and." Notice the chiasmic weaving of r/l sounds with k sounds between "Round the decay" and "colossal Wreck." The sequence of doubled consonsant sounds -- ck, b, l, s -- acts very much like the repeated dominant chords in the final cadence of a traditional classical symphony, setting up the resolution on the tonic, here taking the form of the long a sound. Unfortunately, that you don't hear and appreciate the music in these lines is of little critical value. It only disqualifies you from saying much worth hearing about "Ozymandias."

The vast and trunkless legs of stone present a striking image. Torsi missing their appendages are common enough, but Shelley's trunkless legs and head are unique, to my knowledge, in the history of statuary.

Um, so? Again, this isn't criticism. It's attacking the donnée of the poem. "Aw that kinda shit doesn't really happen in real life." My mom doesn't like Hamlet because she thinks all ghost stories are patently silly. That's her right. But you'd be a fool to go to her for critical evaluations of literature.

The visage raises further difficulties. It's no easy trick to frown and sneer at once; try it sometime.

Well, it may not be easy, but it's a feat observable in statuary all across Asia, specifically in conventional temple guard figures. It wouldn't surprise me a bit if that's what Shelley has in mind.


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 heart must belong to Ozymandias; so the passage means, "the sculptor well understood the passions that fed Ozymandias's heart, and that the sculptor mocked, and that survive both the sculptor and Ozymandias." But this is too convoluted to be impressive.

That's because you could do a better job of parsing it. "The hand that mocked [those passions], and the heart that fed [them]" are direct objects of "tell" [meaning reveal]. The passage is better summarized: the " . . . frown, and wrinkled lip, and sneer . . . tell [relate] that its sculptor well those passions read which yet survive, [and tell (reveal)] the hand that mocked [those passions] and the heart that fed [them]. Zeugma. Great word.

Isn't puzzling out syntactically challenging passages the meat and potatoes of the poetry critic? Do you also fall apart in front of:
What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her Son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?

But its theme is banal, and banally expressed.
Well, the whole point of my making a post on "Ozymandias" at all was that to me it's neither banal nor banally expressed. I get the full Houseman effect when I read it. If you don't, it's very much your loss.

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