Some Flowers Soon is taking a Christmas break. But we end the year with a poetry exclusive: an audio transcript of Shelley writing his hit sonnet “Ozymandias”. Previously circulated only among Oxbridge dons, the tape has been restored using the latest techniques in poetic licence.
Wikipedia: [voiceover] The banker and political writer Horace Smith spent the Christmas season of 1817–1818 with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley. At this time, members of the Shelleys’ literary circle would sometimes challenge each other to write competing sonnets on a common subject: Shelley, John Keats and Leigh Hunt wrote competing sonnets about the Nile around the same time.
Shelley and Smith both chose a passage from the writings of the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus in Bibliotheca historica, which described a massive Egyptian statue and quoted its inscription: “King of Kings Ozymandias am I. If any want to know how great I am and where I lie, let him outdo me in my work.” In Shelley’s poem, Diodorus becomes “a traveller from an antique land”.
Percy Shelley: So, the way I see it, and this is what I was saying to John [Keats] at our last meeting, we either write these sonnets or we don’t, you know?
Because I don’t want to sit here getting ink on my breeches if we’re not going to come up with something good.
Leigh Hunt: And that’s why, uh...
I think we’ve got to think big.
We’re the Late Romantics, people want something groovy.
Like, Ancient Greeks writing about statues of pharaohs.
Horace Smith: [scratching at foolscap] Well, I was working on this one last night, and I think it’s good, it’s got something, you know.
In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:—
Percy Shelley: Yeah, it’s alright. I mean, it’s OK.
Oh, Mr Siculus...
Oh, Johnny Siculus... spangles in your hair...
Mary Shelley: [looks up from reading Bibliotheca historica] Ozymandias?
Percy Shelley: Oh, Ozymandias... spangles in your hair...
Horace Smith: I don’t know, man.
I mean, what does it mean?
It needs something else in there you know, not just... spangles.
Percy Shelley: Alright, OK. How about —
Oh, Ozymandias... stone legs standing there...
Don't you know the trunk you need has vanished in the air...
So, it starts like that, but the rest goes ababacdc...
John Keats: It’s just the same f*cking shit.
[Servant in sheepskin coat arrives with glasses of claret.]
Horace Smith: I really think my new one’s getting somewhere.
Naught but the Leg remaining to disclose...
Leigh Hunt: [smoking cigar] What if we read these sonnets out on the banks of the Nile?
Percy Shelley: No, I want to go to Italy, practise my sailing...
OK... I've got it now.
I met a traveller...
I met a traveller... in a transit van...
John Keats: I’m leaving the band.