4 May 2010
by Justice Putnam
Black Kos Tuesday's Chile
Contributing Poetry Editor
Percy Shelley's sonnet, Ozymandias, was published in England in 1818. Earlier that year, Percy, with Mary Shelley and their children; and along with his sister-in-law Claire Clairmont, mother of Byron's child, expatriated to Bagni di Lucca, Italy. In the late summer, they moved to Este, near Venice to be closer to Byron's villa. At a time when the "Exceptionalism" of British colonial reach was unquestioned; in fact, exalted in verse, theatre and the academy, Shelly acknowledged the erosion Time has on all leaders and empires:
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".
-- Percy Bysshe Shelley
Jamaican-born Claude McKay certainly channeled Shelley, when in 1922, he questioned the "Exceptionalism" of an America that held the "hand that mocked them and the heart that fed." McKay saw also, though few will admit the obvious erosion of Time, that even for America, there will be a future where the "lone and level sands stretch far away."
Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger's tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate.
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time's unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.
-- Claude McKay
(House Ruins of Poet St Pol Roux, Brittany, France / copyright Justice Putnam)