Percy Bysshe Shelley was a famous poet at the turn of the nineteenth century. He was born into nobility as the eldest son of his family, but his writing caused his relationship with his family to become strained. He was trained at Eton and then later at Oxford. After his first marriage failed he married Mary Godwin, who became famous for writing Frankenstein. Shelley pursued his writing as a means of supporting himself and his family since he was estranged from most his family during a great portion of his life. Many of his poems were kept private while he was alive, and he focused on writing political tracts, including one on Atheism called The Necessity of Atheism.
Shelley interacted socially and professionally with a wide range of contemporary poets and writers. He became good friends with John Keats as well as with Lord George Gordon Byron. He was also friends with Horace Smith, who was primarily a political writer. They challenged each other to write a poem about an excerpt they had read by Diodorus Siculus, who was a Greek philosopher. They both wrote the poems and submitted them for publication. Shelley’s was published first, and then Smith’s about a month later in the same journal. It is interesting to see the different approach that each poet took to the same subject matter.
By Percy 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 shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd 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 poem is a departure from Shelley’s other work, which focused on the subject matter similar to other romantic poets of the time. This piece focuses much more on politics and the use of power in the world. While Shelley's sonnet looks at how power does not seem to last after death, and the great homage has disappeared, Smith’s poem compares the present day London and what someone may look back on them in the far distant future and see that a similar fate may await the people in Great Britain. Studying the two poems together allows the reader to see how there can be many different ways to look at the same problem or issue and come to a different conclusion, or how it is possible to be influenced in a different way by a similar series of events.
On a Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below
By Horace Smith
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!
Naught but the leg remaining to disclose
The sight of that forgotten Babylon.
We wonder, and some hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when through the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the wolf in chase,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What wonderful, but unrecorded, race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
Both of these poems were originally published in 1818, but Shelley did include it in an anthology that he published the following year. In addition to poetry and his political writings, Shelley wrote a gothic novel called Zasstrozzi. Unfortunately, Shelley did not receive much critical acclaim during his lifetime, and he often struggled financially while he was alive. After his death Shelley became a well known and respect poet. Today he is thought of as one of the greatest poets of his time. Many generations of poets have studied his work and tried to model their works after his.
“Where London Stood”
Percy Shelley’s Gothic Readings
Reading Prompts on the Poem
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley (PDF)