Ozymandias: How To Write a Good Poem


How do we write a good poem? It seems like a silly question after all poetry is subjective and the process of writing itself is as inscrutable as the human mind. And yet I think we might be able to find some insight into the subject by looking at this guy: Horace Smith He was a stockbroker a satirist and an author of historical novels in the 1800s Despite his numerous endeavors today, his legacy is primarily related to this poem: 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 Not but the leg remaining to disclose the site of this forgotten babylon We wonder and some hunter may express wonder like ours when through the wilderness the where London stood holding the wolf in chase He meets some fragment huge and stops to guess what powerful but unrecorded race once dwelt in that annihilated place If this sounds familiar, that’s because Horace wrote this poem is part of a competition with a poet whose name is probably also familiar Percy Shelley Though largely unrecognized and uninterested in fame in his lifetime (despite hanging around other famous writers like Lord Byron) Shelley is now widely known as one of the major Romantic poets Shelley wrote a poem identical to Horace’s in form themes subject matter even with common images and phrasing at times and yet the poem that Shelley wrote has been lauded as one of the greatest poems in the history of Poetry while Smith’s poem has been all but forgotten In case you haven’t heard Shelley’s Ozymandias, here it is 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 it’s 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 the lanes round the decay of that colossal wreck boundless and bare the Lone and level sands stretch far away I don’t know about you But when I read these two poems, I’m left with a distinctly different feeling at their conclusion with Shelley’s poem I’m left with a sense of awe a feeling that I need to sit back and contemplate the impact of what I’ve just read But when I read Horace’s poem I don’t feel anything at all If anything Horace’s poem feels silly unimaginative and simple, I Think one of the things that makes Shelley’s poems so much more effective is the way he frames it He tells us he meets a traveller from an antique land who tells him all of this On one level that gives his poem and almost mythic quality It makes us feel as though we’re listening to a bard’s tale or a troubadour song It says this story has traveled a long way to get to you Whereas Horace’s gives you no source leaving you to surmise that all of this information is coming from only the speaker In addition Shelley doesn’t tell us what to think of the images he presents he simply presents them Well Smith does our thinking for us Telling us what we wonder coming up with this odd image of some futuristic hunter coming across an ancient artifact of London Smith’s poem communicates the message fine We understand him but Shelley makes us feel something instead of trying to moralize. He pays attention to language Well Smith says gigantic leg Shelley describes two vast and trunkless legs of stone There is no argument about which image carries more of an impact. I Think this is so cool. It’s a page from Shelley’s journal of him drafting Ozymandias You can see most of it’s crossed out, but you can still make out what he wrote Pedestal in not in the know There is a know a pedestal is There stands by the Nile a long single pedestal on which To trunkless legs are near hmm You get the idea the whole page is like that You can see that he’s struggling to find a way into the poem Lots of the language is there but something’s not quite right What we get from being able to look at these two almost identical Poems is a rare ability to see how taste and intention can affect the end result on the other side of this page There is a copy of the sonnet in more or less its final form

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