Kaleidoscope: the Great Seen Small
Curious how things stick in the memory. The end of term is like a dream, time for unloading the overstocked confusion of the preceding months, and erasing the worthless. Incarcerated in the home-bound plane, in that half-conscious, halfstunned state peculiar to tinned air travel, so many images flash in the mind’s eye, but refuse to fade.
What could possibly weld together Moscow’s popular democracy protests, the deaths of the much-lamented critic Christopher Hitchens, the largely unlamented Kim Ill Jung, and a newspaper giveaway on the Romantic poets? All kept jostling for prominence in the confined and overloaded space of my brain.
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) was a star of the English Romantic movement—if you will, the rock stars of the age—with enough money that work was a hobby not done from grinding need, with a flamboyantly excessive, dissolute lifestyle, elite travel opportunities, massive substance abuse and therefore of course, a premature, ideally operatic early death. Half of the Romantic poets had gone by 30, including Shelley, Keats and Byron; as compared with 27 for Messrs Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janice Joplin, and more in our times. They lived in an age of exploration, discovery and a huge tension between the exploding world of new industry and trade, against doomed requiems for nature and lost souls. A bit like today, then.
Like many others, Shelley was fascinated by the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt, then emerging from their sandy tombs. The impending arrival in London of a vast bust of Rameses II, aka Ozymandias, the most grandiose and arrogant Pharaoh of them all, caught the popular imagination. He and his empire were assumed to be eternal, unthreatened by age, change or democracy. His prestige building projects were to eclipse all others, and his image was everywhere. All must bow before him. Eternal greatness and, if the embalmers were as good as claimed, eternal life was his. And all, as Shelley notes, not without the satisfaction of the powerless, that all that grandeur has long been ground into sand.
Christopher Hitchens, scourge of the pretentious politician and the sloppy thinker, would have approved. By massive coincidence, he also wrote the preface to the poetry book. The late North Korean, or any other dynastic despot, would not tolerate and could not cope with such iconoclasm. But the white-ribboned, locked out, under-counted, enduring citizens braving the elements and the state, each as insignificant as a grain of sand but together with potential tornado force would just as certainly take heart from the now worthless, idle, fallen idol.
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.