I have become haunted by this poem by Percy Shelley, particularly as read by Harry Melling in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”.
Melling is a genius, probably the only good thing to come out of the Harry Potter series. Shelley is also a genius. Buster Scruggs is an anthology of six short stories centered around the old west – and well worth your time. But the one with Melling I can’t stop thinking about (spoiler alerts).
He plays an armless, legless man, an intellectual, driven around old west towns in a cart by his handler (Liam Neeson), where he regales the crowd with readings (recited from memory): Shelley, the Bible, the Declaration of Independence. Delivered powerfully and with confidence, to the visages of the uncomprehending dregs of old west society. And slowly, the crowds start to thin out; after the sensation of an armless, legless man reciting poetry becomes mundane, nobody wants to stay for Shelley. They turn their attention to a chicken, who can peck at numbers correctly. The Melling character is replaced, thrown into a pond by his handler when the money stopped flowing, too much of a hassle to be bothered with despite his soaring intellect.
What struck me was the extraordinary vulnerability of the Melling character; a rare intellect at the mercy of his handler, and of the attention span of idiots. And it seemed to me a metaphor for the vulnerability of civilization itself, especially given that the Melling character was reciting Ozymandias, about an ancient Egyptian pharaoh and the wreckage of his empire, to a people who represent the wreckage of ours.
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.”
Shelley! What a life. What a poet.
The segue cannot be ignored. You wrote of lost civilizations and follow it up with Ozymandias! The back story is compelling. Poets in a competition – each with their own “Ozymandias”, each writing on the same topic!
And Horace Smith, I wager, the equal of Shelley in this case, and even more on point when we speak of antediluvian societies. Here’s the Smith version:
Horace Smith’s “Ozymandias”
In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:—
“I am great OZYMANDIAS,” saith the stone,
“The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
“The wonders of my hand.”— The City’s gone,—
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
We wonder,—and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place
Now, I gotta go back and watch that part of Buster Scruggs….BIG, BIG fan of Tim (“We thought you was a toad) Blake Nelson!!!!!
I love that poem. Thanks!!! Yes Buster Scruggs, #WorthIt.
Just watched Melling in The Pale Blue Eye. What an unlikely actor! He also quotes poetry in TPBE….I’ll leave it at that for those who want to watch it on Netflix.
He’s never going to be a leading man but may be the next iteration of Harry Dean Stanton.
I need to find that one.