February 22, 2004

Percy Shelley & The Ecclesiastes Obsession


We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;
How restlessly they speed, and gleam, and quiver,
Streaking the darkness radiantly! - yet soon
Night closes round; and they are lost for ever;

Or like forgotten lyres, whose dissonant strings
Give various response to each varying blast,
To whose frail frame no second motion brings
One mood or modulation like the last.

We rest.- A dream has power to poison sleep;
We rise. - One wandering thought pollutes the day;
We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep;
Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away:

It is the same! - For, be it joy or sorrow,
The path of its departure still is free:
Man's yesterday may ne'er be like his morrow;
Nought may endure but Mutability.


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.

So, in “Mutability,” we're all a bunch of clouds and old musical instruments and so on and so forth . . . constantly in motion . . . constantly changing. We sleep, we wake, we go about doing our little things here and there, acting out our personal dramas and just generally . . . living. Sometimes we’re happy, sometimes we’re sad, but it all comes out in the wash, in the end. Whatever mood we find ourselves in will pass, each day bringing something completely different from the one before, right? The only thing that remains unchanged is the fact of Change (“Mutability”) itself. Lovely.

Now, in “Ozymandias” you've got some random guy wandering around the desert for no good reason, and he spots something that makes such an impression on him that he remembers it throughout the rest of his travels and bores random people with the story. In some long-forgotten place, half-ruined, broken, and buried beneath desert sands, he has seen the remains of a massive statue (I just can't get away from the end of Planet of the Apes when I think about this, much to my chagrin). It is the image of a forgotten king who ruled a forgotten kingdom. His face is proud and full of the dreadful knowledge of his own power. The inscription on the monument indicates that this king thought that he and his works would be around a lot longer than he or they actually were. There is nothing but this statue left of whatever mighty empire this man built for himself in ages long gone. These things just don’t last, and he didn't figure that out.

I find that Shelley’s poetry brings vivid pictures leaping directly into my imagination. I can’t tell for sure what his mood is in “Mutability,” but I his observations are perfectly accurate. He seems, perhaps, a bit apathetic, as if he is tired of the emotional ups and downs of life and wishes to forswear them. Yeah. Good luck with that one, Pers. Somehow, I doubt he pulled it off. “Ozymandias,” on the other hand, is particularly enjoyable because it fairly reeks of irony. And we can't forget the fact that everyone loves to see bad things happen to people. Watching the mighty laid low is a lot more likely to make us laugh than cry, somehow. There is so much cold, hard pride in the inscription on the broken statue of the king, and such certainty, engraved on the face of stone, that he and his accomplishments will never be forgotten. There is no doubt in his mind . . . But the state of the monument and the surrounding wasteland begs to differ . . . They are a quietly powerful testament to the foolish vanity of the man who thought he would be immortal.

Clearly, Shelley caught the same intellectual wave as the author of Ecclesiastes. In fact, he flat out rips Solomon off. I think it would be fairly safe to assume that he was "inspired" by another source for this poetry. I could quote nearly any verse from Ecclesiastes and it would be relevant to analyzing one of these two poems: The constant references to the ever-changing nature of things, chasing after the wind, the observations that everything passes away, nothing is forever, all that is on earth is transient.

I find that the statement, “There is nothing new under the sun,” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) is especially relevant to Shelley’s poetry. Even his own observations on transience and mutability merely echo the centuries-old observations of a much wiser man who came before . . . Ironic, that.

Posted by Jared at February 22, 2004 11:17 PM | TrackBack