Sunday, 8 March 2009


It's interesting to see classical and niche allusions getting mainstream spotlight; one example is the name Ozymandias, via its appearance in Watchmen as the superhero (played by Matthew Goode) who surrounds himself with ancient Egyptian trappings. I knew even before reading the graphic novel that Ozymandias is the Greek name for Ramesses II, but only recently ran into the etymology: it's the Greek rendition of part of his throne name User-maat-re Setep-en-re ("Powerful is the Justice of , Chosen of Ré").

The broken "Younger Memnon" statue of Ramesses II, now in the British Museum, is generally viewed as the inspiration for Shelley's famous sonnet, Ozymandias. Its pedestal inscription was reported by the 1st century Greek historian Diodorus Siculus as

"King of Kings am I, Osymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works"

- Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca historica, Book I/47

and this is the prototype for Shelley's

"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings, Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair!"

The poem arose out of a sonnet-writing contest between Shelley and his friend Horace Smith, both of their efforts on the same theme being published in The Examiner magazine early in 1818. Smith's is not at all bad, and certainly interesting in its wider scope that taps into a long-running literary fascination with apocalypses engulfing London (see Where London Stood). Maybe it suffered from its decidedly unsnappy title.

On a Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below.

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, -
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.

We wonder,- and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

Smith deserves to be better known, a polymath who impressed Shelley for combining writing talent with a successful career as a stockbroker. He and his brother James co-wrote a massively popular book of poetic parodies, the 1813 Rejected Addresses, or, The new Theatrum poetarum (Gutenberg EText-No. 3769) which imagines various popular poets' takes on the topical theme of the rebuilding of Drury Lane Theatre. Even the poets lampooned liked it; Sir Walter Scott said that he was convinced "that he had indeed written the description of the fire in A Tale of Drury Lane, though he had forgotten when" (ODNB).

Horace Smith went on to write a series of mostly-forgotten historical novels - thirteen including Brambletye House; or, Cavaliers and Roundheads (1826), The Tor Hill (1826), Reuben Apsley (1827), Zillah: A Tale of the Holy City (1828), The New Forest (1829) and Walter Colyton: A Tale of 1688 (1830) - as well as a large body of poetry and essays (see the Internet Archive).

As a prolific and popular writer in his time, Smith was widely read, and as explained in Figs, Bells, Poe, and Horace Smith (Burton R. Pollin, Poe Newsletter, vol. III, no. 1, June 1970, Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore) the works of Poe contain frequent quotations and allusions to Smith's works. Poe's A Tale of Jerusalem, for instance, makes more sense once known to be a lampoon of the overblown pseudo-biblical style of Zillah.

The memorable phrase "where London stood" also appears in the 1823 epic poem Love by Ebenezer Elliott, "the Corn-law Rhymer and Poet of the Poor", which has lines - see here - with a very similar suggestion that England might go the same way as other lost empires:

England, like Greece, shall fall, despoil'd, defaced,
And weep, the Tadmor of the watery waste.
The wave shall mock her lone and manless shore;
The deep shall know her freighted wealth no more;
And unborn wanderers, in the future wood
Where London stands, shall ask where London stood?

I just amended this post because I initially thought Elliott's use predated Smith's. It doesn't: the transcriber of the intro page of this online edition has apparently mistaken the publication date MDCCCXL (1840) for MDCCCXI (1811). It looks then as if Elliott got the idea from Smith.

- Ray


  1. Interesting. Makes one think of the Anasazi or, more topical, Bush's Shoe that will be the only thing left in Iraq. As for books, we have Felix to thank (?) for putting us on to A Scientific Romance.

  2. You are exactly what I look for in a blog!

    Keep up the great work!

  3. Keep up the great work!