Ozymandias – The Bodleian Draft

This is what originally got me thinking about Ozymandias again. What follows probably won’t be of interest to most, but still.

I initially stumbled on it at various sites before discovering that the original was available at the Bodleian website with a transcript. I did all the transcribing myself. There was only one word that really tripped me up (though I might have teased out if I hadn’t discovered the Bodleian website — Quiver). There are a couple little places where I disagree with the Bodleian transcription but can see it either way (at one point, the Bodleian transcriber reads th[r] where I read lies). However, I’m calling the Bodleian transcriber wrong when he or she reads Shelley’s sketch as:

shattered leg half sunk whose gathered frown

This makes no sense whatsoever. Why would a “shattered leg” have a “gathered frown”? I read “leg” as head. The transcriber also reads the following:

And smile & wrinkled lips impatient of command

That didn’t make much sense to me since it’s preceded by frown and followed by wrinkled lips (though smile is possible). I went out on a limb and read the word as snarlin[g], reasoning that Shelley (as with other words in the sketch) abandoned the word before he got to the  final g.

And snarlin & wrinkled lips impatient of command

His intention could have been to write “snarling lips”.

I’m fascinated by stuff like this because it reveals the creative process in action, and reveals how genius can start with mediocre material and hew it to inspired perfection. When I was first teaching myself how to write poetry, I used to love combing through the sketchbooks. I’m not sure how much it helped me be a better poet, but the choices made by the greats could be revealing.

Here’s my transcript:

Shelley the Editor

Some brief comments on what I find interesting. Shelley probably realized that he was going to mention the pedestal later, in reference to Ozymandias’s words, so why mention the pedestal twice? There’s small room for redundancy in a sonnet, so Shelley discarded the description of the pedestal until later.

With the adjective “colossal” appearing again and again, you can see that Shelley was struggling with how to communicate the giant and overwhelming archaeological remains. He wants to stress the notion of Ozymandias’s self-appointed grandeur with what will be, by the end of the poem, an empty gesture lost in the far greater immensity of a barren desert. Shelley would eventually settle on vast.

Shelley then struggles with how to characterize Ozymandias’s visage. He uses an adjective like “gathered” and “wrinkled”. He will eventually discard the flavorless “gathered” and settle on wrinkled (which remains evocative) and sneer. He also considers curved but this adjective, like gathered, is too neutral to express what he deems to be the tyrant’s contempt and cruelty.

Shelley will eventually replace “lips impatient of command” with “sneer of cold command”. In that little alteration you see the mind of a great poet at work. The second description is unforgettable while the first is abstract and discursive. What’s the difference? The second phrase evokes both a visual image, sneer, and the sensate feeling of cold (with all its associations). Whenever you describe a thing in poetry, imbue it with the senses. Most will rely on the sense of sight, but don’t forget the other four senses.

The most interesting facet of the sketch is Shelley’s first reference to the artist as “some sculptor’s art”. Some is a very general reference. What this tells us is that the artist, initially, seems to have been nothing more than an off-handed aside. And that’s interesting because Shelley’s sketch stops here. It’s almost as though he realizes that he can make something more from the artist. When the Sonnet is completed, the artist will have become as important to the poem as Ozymandias. The artist represents a kind of subversion and humanity. The artist becomes ‘its sculptor‘ rather than ‘some artist’. (And for the full discussion of the poem, go here.)

And that’s about all I have to say.

5 responses

  1. Pingback: Shelley’s Sonnet: Ozymandias « PoemShape

  2. “When I was first teaching myself how to write poetry, I used to love combing through the sketchbooks.”

    Do you have a source? I mean, I imagine things like this would be on university sites or public exhibition sites, but that would seem to take a lot of scrounging around for. Is there a specific anthology or website to recommend?

    I love these small tidbits.


    • Oh man… this stuff is hard to come by — mostly bits and pieces. I mostly find it in biographies of poets and sometimes in books explicitly about a poet’s sketchbook. “Yeats at Work” is one such book. You can pick it up used for 1¢. There’s also The Notebooks of Robert Frost, but the problem is that the book isn’t a facsimile edition and so you’re reliant on the editors’ reading skills. Apparently, they made such a complete and utter mess of the transcription that are rumors of a “corrected and revised” edition (read corrected and revised with a strong dose of understatement) – still, you can get the hardcover for a very reasonable price and I think it’s worth it. Amy Lowell, in her massive 2 book biography of Keats, references Keats’ manuscripts throughout. Etc. Etc. Etc… The hope is that other scholars will see the usefulness of publications like these and eventually get around to publishing them (like they did for Frost).


  3. Pingback: Poetry in Context: “Ozymandias” | M.E. Bond

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