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Monuments and Legacies

Since the world turned upside down and went Zoom-only, I have been meeting with small groups of teens for “Plunge into Poetry,” my Outschool poetry club. They are an adventurous crew and have faithfully followed my chosen titles. I’ve tried to both meet them where they are, analysis-wise, and stretch them.

On the stretch side, we looked at Shelley’s “Ozymandias” last week (text is below). Before you dive right in, though, it helps to understand Shelley’s inspiration.

The title of his poem refers to the ruins of an ancient monument to an Egyptian pharaoh, possibly known as Ramses II (of biblical infamy) and/or Ozymandias. He read about the statue–never saw it–and it may have looked like the painting below.

Especially notice the scale of the statue’s remains relative to the bystanders. Huge, huh!

I’m thinking Ozymandias/Ramses had no problems with self-esteem. And you?

With this image forefront in your mind, you can move on to the poem now. Access granted!


By Percy Bysshe Shelley

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 Ozymanidas, 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.”

Our discussions this week took on the irony in Ozymandias’ claims as well as the different forms of creation in the poem (sculptor, storyteller, poet, etc.) and their relative power to leave a legacy (and what sort of legacy?).

The Poetry Foundation, which I have a new and profound respect for, has this amazing poetry prompt to connect “Ozymandias” to our lives:

Think of some of the monuments in your country. Why where they built? What do they symbolize? Now imagine those same monuments 500 years in the future. Write a poem that, like “Ozymandias,” describes the effects of time on both the monuments themselves, and the values they were meant to represent.

I gave my students a couple of national monuments to think about. I am from St. Louis and always immediately turn to the Gateway Arch and all it symbolizes. I wonder if it will fall into the Mississippi River at some future date–and how far out into the river would it go?

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

I’ve never seen Mt. Rushmore, though I have wanted to. It must be impressive in person. But then we start to verge into a tradition of outsized statues erected by autocratic leaders in honor of themselves (think Stalin, Mao Zedong). Yes or no?

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

Now seems an opportune time to consider what we want our legacy to be and in what form we want to leave it. How can we come out of COVID-19 and pass on something worthy to the coming years?

Thanks much to the Poetry Foundation, which is celebrating National Poetry Month and has amazing materials for teaching and enjoying poetry (!

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