Friday, March 21, 2008



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 shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd 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.

I suppose it’s sort of interesting that, like The Second Coming, this one also references the ancient desert. This poem reminds me of the thoughts I’ve had when I look at my driveway, the cement chipped and cracked from frost and snow, grass pushing up through the cracks in the summertime. It reminds me of the tall weeds that I could see through the floor boards of my grandmother’s back porch, or the tree roots and shrubs that creep underground and try to pry their way into pipes and through foundation walls. It makes me think back to the old houses on the gulf coast in Biloxi, Spanish moss dripping from giant trees, paint peeling, siding rotting and vegetation surrounding the houses and claiming them in the languid heat. For every construction site I see, I imagine the battle waged against nature and how quickly anything we build or make succumbs once we give up the fight to keep it.

I wonder when a person officially disappears. People I knew who have been gone for many years become less real and more fictionalized with each year that passes and with each person who dies and one day, no one living will remember them anymore. They will become a short description of whose mother they were or that they had polio, what war they fought in or that they were allergic to bees.

I wonder about our newly obsessive urge to catalogue and document every event in our lives. When my friend’s baby is grown, will all those digital pictures and scrapbooks still exist? Will they mean anything? How will it change a person to have photographs and video to cement reality, instead of the sketchy photos, old blue ribbons and random report cards my generation has, which allow us, with or without intent to morph and recreate the past?


Leatherdykeuk said...

Fascinating observations. I suspect that much of the digital evidence will vanish until a more durable medium is found. CDs don't last forever, hard drives crash, SD cards meet magnets.

What a great anthology that would be - fictional biographies reduced to one sentence.

Julie at Virtual Voyage said...

Love this poem. Your post made me think of Warhol's quote about everyone being famous today for fifteen minutes. As for old photos of family - at least 10k pre-digital in Ikea storage boxes. Suspect that even DVD's will last longer than we expect.

steve said...

I first read this in eighth grade and loved it at first reading. The images are wonderful. I like Shelley's tribute to the sculptor.

Historically, Shelley missed his mark. Ozymandias is an alternate name for Ramses II, who is still labeled "The Great." But hey, poets certainly are entitiled to poetic license.

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

You're finding some great poems, Lisa. I was actually teaching this poem (among others--we were in a sonnet unit) the week Saddam Hussein's statue was toppled in Iraq--made for some great discussions and "real world applications" as teachers love to say!

About those digital baby books? My sons (both in their 20s) each have a box. Yup, an old fashioned box I kept meaning to form into a scrapbook of some sort. It's all in there though.

Lisa said...

Rachel, Yes -- I was thinking about family members who either died before I was born or died when I was so young that I don't really remember them. It really does come down to one -line biographies in a way. My great-grandfather lived with my grandparents until he died and he had dementia and used to demand to know who stole his jar of pennies, my father's father was a Boston cab driver, my father's mother was a dancer, my father's grandfather lost all his money in the depression. He was a newspaper editor in Connecticut and he used to roller skate to work in summer...I think these memories or anecdotes are interesting because as time passes, we confuse them, but I don't think it really matters much to some of us and to others, it matters a great deal.

Julie, I think these things can survive, but the question will eventually become, who will archive and store it all?

Steve, I think I like it better with this title. It makes it more universal I think.

Judy, I'll bet teachers live for the moments when an old poem can be discussed within the context of something current. I have fallen into a different phenomenon -- everything feels connected and relevant to me.

I always worry about those boxes. I finally turned over some memorabilia to my stepson, who is now 27, but I still worry that he'll lose or misplace it during a move.

Carleen Brice said...

I love this post. It's like poetry itself. As a gardener I think about this topic a lot. Turn your back for a week and the weeds take over. Frustrating for a gardener, but if it's that easy for the dandelions and bindweed to thrive here maybe they are meant to be?

Lisa said...

Carleen, Exactly! I battled mildew from dampness in England, carpenter ants in New Hampshire, weeds everywhere I've been, moles, rabbits eating trails through delicate sod, it's always something. I'm constantly visualizing how quickly nature takes over anyplace. And it's occurred to me that those old houses on highway 90 in Biloxi, if they still existed a few years back were probably destroyed by the hurricane.

Greg said...

Most ancient Egyptians and many ancient Greeks were obssessed with mortality and legacy. In some ways, many of the prominent figures of those days have gained a kind of immortality. Cicero, for example, is widely recognized today as a legendary statesman and accomplished writer, and yet he died 2000 years ago.

The Parthenon or Great Pyramids remain standing to varying degrees, giving them some credence to immortality, I suppose. But yea, the vast majority of people and things just vanish.

Always a great topic on one's birthday! Wish me a happy one, Lisa!


Lisa said...


A very happy birthday to you! So this would be twenty-? Perhaps you'll be the family member to achieve immortality in some fashion. There are ancients from many cultures who've achieved near immortality, but I'm kind of partial to Aristotle myself ;)

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf