07 January 2011

The Oxymandias meme

Most reasonably well-educated people whose native language is English, a category that I'm sure includes my readership, have encountered Shelley's poem Ozymandias. Here are a few lines to jog your memory:

"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...."

The poem ends with two discordant observations: first, that the owner of that wrinkled lip, Ozymandias, thought his works immortal: "look on my works," he confidently declares, to his posterity.

The second observation, of course, is that his works proved mortal indeed, buried now under "lone and level sands" around that ruin of a statue.

The poem is a powerful expression of a meme -- the notion that a deserved obscurity awaits precisely the egotist who boasts about his legacy.

As I mentioned yesterday, I have of late been reading the collected poems of Robert Graves, and it struck me that the Ozymandias meme plays a rather large part in his poetic armory.

One of his poems is called "The General Elliot," and it describes a hero of that name, whose visage is painted on a sign above a tavern, presumably here. The name is probably a reference to Gilbert Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound, 1st Earl of Minto, who was the Governor-General of India between 1807 and 1813.

The gibe in Graves' poem is the same in Shelley's: Yes, you were a big wheel in your day, but no one knows who you are now, or in what wars you gained distinction.

He fell in victory's fierce pursuit,
Holed through and through with shot....
The potman cannot well recall,
The ostler never knew,
Whether that day was Malplaquet,
The Boyne, or Waterloo.

The eighth and final verse reads:

And paint shall keep his buttons bright
Though all the world's forgot
Whether he died for England's pride
By battle or by pot.

If the reference is, as I suspect, to the Governor-General, let it be said that he died at home, in England, in 1814, a year after leaving his Indian post, (about a year before the Battle of Waterloo, a century after the battle of Malplaquet, and more than 120 years after the battle of The Boyne.)

Another poem in this collection, titled simply "Vanity," states the Oxymandias meme more baldly. Indeed, this one may be faulted for violating the cardinal rule "show don't tell." Though it shows us an apparently supernatural toad who "dreams away the past," its interest is in telling us what this toad knows.

Which is "that certitude at last/Must melt away in vanity --/ No gate is fast, no door is fast."

The Eliot poem is rather gimmicky, though in its way moving. "Vanity" is flat. But there is another poem that displays the same meme with great power, and of that I will write in tomorrow's entry.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.