In Victorian Britain married women were firmly under the control of men. They were obliged to be obedient to their husbands and could not own property independent of him. Okay it sounds great in theory, but how did it actually work?
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.
Oozymandias is Percy Shelley’s most famous poem and one of the most popular in the English language. It is a very simple account of being told about a ruin in the desert in Egypt. It is interesting that this one from all his output should prove to be so enduring because on the face of it, it is quite a light bit of work. The narrator is in an antique land, or in other words one that compared to early nineteenth century England is undeveloped. He is guided to a fallen statue which has seen better days. That the boastful message on the pedestal is at odds with how time has treated it is described but not commented upon.
When I read, and indeed learned by heart, this poem as a boy I had no idea that it was describing a real monument. I had assumed that Ozymandias was a name made up for the poem. But it turns out that it is in fact a common name for the Egyptian pharaoh Ramasesses II. His statue was obtained by the British Museum at around the time the poem was written, though the poem was written before it actually arrived. Even so, it seems likely that the news that it was on its way was what inspired Shelley to write.
Although it does have a simple rhyming structure, I don’t think the rhyme is particularly prominent. You can read it without noticing them. It’s very conversational. You could imagine someone in a pub just saying it and not realising that it is poetry. As such I think it is an early example of literary writing becoming less formal.
I’d be really interested in what you think of it.
There is a notion that the history of Britain has been written by the Whigs, and that they have put their moderate progressive slant on events. Lady Antonia Fraser would certainly fall into that mould. She is famous enough as a historian for her family and marriages to not be the things that define her. But on this particular subject it is impossible not to remember that she is from a very political background. Her father was Lord Longford who served in a Labour government. She has a distinctly establishment background, and this is an account from the point of view of the establishment at the time. We don’t hear much from the point of view of the common man, or at least not directly. Their main role in the story is breaking the windows of the elites.
The launch of one of my videos on YouTube is always accompanied by a flurry of PR activity. Well actually, I just tweet it a couple of times in the hope that somebody somewhere will notice. From time to time I even get some responses. My most recent one on the death of Alaric elicited a gem of a response from @sciamannata who drew my attention to a poem on the subject by the German romantic poet August Graf von Platen. I don’t know anything about this guy apart from his dates – early nineteenth century. But reading the poem you can get a big sense of what Alaric meant to pre-unification Germans.
I had a couple of glasses of wine and decided to review a Victorian
Things are just crazy in my house sometimes. Anyway here is the video – there is no script as I was extemporising like the hell raiser that I am.
Advice to Young Men is one of the less well known of Cobbett’s books. It was published in paperback in the eighties when there was a bit of a Cobbett revival, but aside from that it has rarely troubled the shelves of bookshops. It would be a stretch to say it is a forgotten classic, and other works by Cobbett deserve the greater attention that they receive. But Advice to Young Men does have the distinction of being maybe the first self help book, beating the better known examples by Samuel Smiles and Napoleon Hill into print by many decades. It was also originally published by Cobbett himself who was the very definition of a self made man. So maybe there is some undeserved credit available there.