09 September 2009

King and Kings

Whenever I read a piece of writing that surprises me with its wit, I always feel an intense desire to kiss the writer and give him a hug. This happens all the time when I read Don Juan, and it's just happened now while reading Tristram Shandy. It's the delight induced by unexpected cleverness that prompts the feeling. It's just a pity that both Lord Byron and Laurence Sterne are dead.

But this has nothing to do with tonight's thoughts! Tonight's thoughts, in fact, have in a roundabout way to do with Percy Shelley, the least kissable of the younger Romantics - a man who, I suspect, never made a joke in his life. If you took a course with me, you would learn that Shelley is "the master formalist of the Romantic period." He really is. Even if you haven't taken a course with me, you may know him from "Ozymandias," a wonderful poem of brevity and power:

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."

Reading the first two lines of this poem, you will instantly become aware that Shelley is the master formalist of the Romantic period because, clever reader that you are, you will notice that,
  • for one thing, he uses "trunkless" so that the stress falls on "trunk," while "less" remains so unstressed as to be nearly absent - thus, the word enacts itself (that is, it describes something that is missing half, and it itself is missing half); and,
  • for another thing, he encapsulates the irony of Ozymandias's situation - supposedly powerful, but now in fact irrelevant - by having those legs hang out there at the end of a line with great importance ("vast and trunkless"), only to reduce them in the next line ("Two vast and trunkless legs of stone" Yes? What about them? "Stand in the desert." Oh. That's it?); and,
  • for a final thing, he encapsulates the one of the poem's central themes, the ephemerality of permanence, by ending line 2 with "stone" and line 3 with "sand."
Percy Shelley: he's the master formalist of the Romantic period, you know.

Ozymandias (please note that it is pronounced OzyMANdias, not OzymanDIEass, as in Watchmen) is Ramses II, and people have been looking for the legs for decades. Here is quite a good candidate set. I show this picture to my students.

But I also like to show them this picture, because I love the reduction from sublime to cute that occurs when those legs become feet (feet are inherently charming, I think. Just say the word "feet." It's cute!)

When I teach Shelley (MFRP), and I do the little biographical sketch at the beginning, I explain to the students that Shelley seems always to have been most domestically happy when his household consisted of two women, one of whom he was sleeping with, and one of whom he was not. There is no good way of telling this to students, because if I say it the way I said it above, no one understands it, and if I say it the understandable way, it just sounds bad: "Shelley was happiest in triangular set-ups: when he was living with two women at once." Yeah, ouch. (Nonetheless, this does seem to have been true of Shelley. In fact [draw in your breath between your teeth to indicate awkwardness], it seems to me that the optimum paradigm was the woman he was currently involved with and her sister. I'm not really sure why this is. I've sometimes thought that it was because he himself had two older sisters, and so was most comfortable being petted by sisters, and I've sometimes thought it was because sisters can be seen as two parts of the same woman, because related, and so Shelley had his longed-for anima, just split in two.)

In any case, my response to this facet of Shelley has always been to think he was a bit of a weirdo. But then, brushing my teeth this morning, I suddenly realised that, with the exception of the "living with" part, the same is true of me. Consider my VTTT and my FTT! Consider that when I was in college I made up a triumvirate with M.V. and B.B.! Consider that I really really love hanging out with my FTT and S.A. at the same time!

Oh. Wait. Now I remember that I love hanging out with my FTT and S.A. separately, too. And I remember that the same was true of M.V. and B.B. But nonetheless, it is true that I like triads of two men and me (see how that just sounds horrible?). And I can't help but wonder, thinking about it here as I write it out, if that isn't because, really, I'm a little scared of men. I'm certainly a little scared of men I don't know, but then I'm scared of people I don't know (optimally, in any given social situation, I would like to hide behind someone tall and clutch on to the back of their jumper). I'm certainly a little scared of men in their 60s, but that's because men in their 60s find me weirdly attractive, and that freaks me out and scares me. And generally speaking I find it hard to talk to one person at a time unless we're very close friends - I'm always afraid that I won't be able to keep the conversation going and that the person will find me boring. But I do wonder if there's some way in which men in particular scare me. I wonder if it's because somewhere, quite far down inside, I'm worried that if I hang out alone with a man there will end up being some weird sexual vibe, and the next thing you know you end up in that awkward position where you're kissing someone you never meant to kiss (Because, if you stop and think about it, the slide into sex is always rather awkward. Not while you're doing it, but if you stop and think about how you get from "having a chat" to "naked with each other," it's difficult to see how that ever gets engineered smoothly. But we are off the topic...). Of course this never happens, and intellectually I know that, but what is thought emotionally is rarely conquered by what is known intellectually.

Then again, the truth is that no one of any emotional thing can really satisfy anybody. Most people, for example, seem to need several different families, and obviously they need several different friends. Perhaps Shelley just realised that one female companion wasn't going to fill all his needs - indeed, that one companion couldn't fill all of anyone's needs - and he found a sensible way to deal with it (or would have, if there hadn't also been all those other women he kept getting infatuated with and clinging to and writing poems about. Creep).

Hmm. Let us pass on. Did I mention that I had a fantastically good writing day today? Really quite marvellous. One of those rare days when the writing just flows out. None of it was academic writing but, interestingly, that just made me happier. God, I was so not meant to be an academic!

No comments: