For centuries, people of western cultures have been traveling to eastern countries after hearing about the wonders that others have encountered there. When European nations began colonization of Asian countries, they took with them their own ideals and moral values and projected them onto the new cultures which they were discovering. Edward Said’s Orientalism, a criticism of literary works which displayed this sort of Eurocentric outlook, has aroused many strong emotions on either side of the debate. Orientalism is perfectly exemplified in such works as Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias. Although some people claim that westerners who write about eastern cultures do so purely out of fascination, the truth is that many of those works paint a very skewed and judgmental portrait of their subjects which has been used to degrade and colonize Asian countries.
Percy Bysshe Shelly derived from an aristocratic family and was sent to the finest schools, but he was not the type of person who liked monotony. By the time he was eighteen, he had collaborated with a friend of his to write a pamphlet about Atheism which eventually led to his expulsion from Oxford University (Greenblatt 1732). With Shelley’s history of rebellion against the norm, it is not hard to believe that he would begin to write poetry about far off and interesting places that he might have only ever heard of. Ozymandias is a poem about a traveler whose story about an Egyptian statue captures the imagination of a British man. The fact that the poem’s name is Ozymandias and not Ramesses is the first indicator of Orientalism, since this is not the actual name of the Pharaoh whose statue he writes about. In an article entitled “Travelers from an Antique Land: Shelley’s Inspiration for ‘Ozymandias,’” John Rodenbeck states that “The name ‘Ozymandias’ is a Greek rendition of ‘User-ma-at-re,’ the first element of the praenomen or throne name of the ancient Egyptian king usually known instead by his Ra-name as Ramesses II.” (123) The change in Ramesses’ name to Ozymandias indicates that the general European population had very little knowledge about Egyptian history or anything else which was Oriental and they therefore felt more comfortable calling places, things, and even ancient people (like the Pharaohs) by the names that others who were more familiar to them had conjured up. This might have been done with no malicious intent, but it began to set the stage for an acceptable practice in which westerners applied their own views and judgments onto eastern cultures. Now that the name of Ozymandias is exposed as a European adaptation of the Egyptian name for Ramesses II, we can move forward to its description in a magical, unknown, and desirable land.
Within the first few lines of the poem, we can begin to see the feeling of mysticism that the author must have felt when hearing of these ruins in a far off and ancient place. “I met a traveler from an Antique land / Who said: ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone / Stand in the desert…’”(1-3). These first few lines not only tell us about the inspiration behind Shelley’s poem, but it places the poem and its reader in a fantastical and out of the norm place. It’s understandable that a group of people who were just discovering new cultures would use and apply the knowledge that they had gained throughout their lives. Everyone else does this very same thing: It’s called intelligence. The definition of intelligence being “the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one’s environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria” (Merriam-Webster), it is not farfetched to say that these western people were simply trying to make sense of what they were then discovering. However, this same innocent attempt to grasp new information about new places and cultures was also used by many others to stigmatize the Orient in a negative light according to Occident values. Napoleon Bonaparte was one of those people from European descent who used the negative lens of Asian cultures to fit his purposes. In an article entitled “Western Middle-East Music Imagery in the Face of Napoleon’s Enterprise in Egypt: From Mere Eurocentric Exoticism, to Very Organized Orientalistic Ears,” the author states that
Bonaparte’s landmark in preparing his Campaign [to invade Egypt] were the texts by the Comte de Volney. He reproposed the set of usual stereotypes… the dream, the >>oriental<<>
Because people such as Napoleon Bonaparte were able to use this misinformation that other Westerners relayed about the exotic and ancient East, it is then easier to see where the dangers lie in writing through an Orientalist lens. For Shelley, this specifically negative description does not begin so much with his account of an antique land, but rather with the characterization of Egyptians as “barbarians” that Leoni spoke of.
It is human nature to look at groups of people who are different than themselves and make them out to be strange and unusual. This same thing happened right before the colonization of Asian countries when the colonizers looked for all the possible evidence that they could find which would support a view of the natives as “barbarians.” By turning people of Asian and Middle-Eastern cultures into the “Other,” the unfamiliar groups of peoples who did not know about civilized ways of living, it was easier for countries looking for new lands to justify the invasion and colonization of those cultures. In Ozymandias, the evidence of viewing the Egyptians as savages lies within the description of the statue’s personality:
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. (4-8)
Describing the Pharaoh’s expression as sneering in cold command adds to the idea that despotism ran rampant in Eastern empires. In 1954, the Music Library Association printed a review of a song by composer Richard Bales entitled Ozymandias which was inspired on Shelley’s poem of the same name. Irving Lowens says about Shelley’s Ozymandias that it is a “well known ironic poem on the vanity and futility of a tyrant’s power.” (448). That is the view that Orientalism brings across to the general audience, even through music. It is fairly well-known these days that Egyptian rulers did whatever they thought was necessary to build empires and monuments which would bear their names. However, why is it that those Westerners chose so much to focus on Eastern cultures’ past tyrannies and not on their own tyrannical methods of controlling Eastern nations? Is it because the popularized view of Asian civilizations as savage or barbarous fit their purposes of alienating or “Othering” their conquests therefore making the average European citizen believe that they were on the right track? Absolutely! Furthermore, adding that those angry or tyrannical passions have been left stamped on those lifeless objects in the desert implies that although the Egyptians of colonial times were no longer living in the same way as the ancient Egyptians, it was still in their blood and at risk of manifesting itself again if those people were not controlled by more “civilized” human beings. Were all of these messages in Shelley’s mind when he wrote Ozymandias? Probably not; but the fact still remains that people outside of the Eastern realm used literature such as this poem to justify their invasions, crusades and other atrocities.
But where did the West’s idea of the East being essentially barbaric and morally deviant come from to begin with? Christianity was the one predominant belief by which a lot of these Western nations abided and the presumption through which they judged everything and everyone else. The peoples of ancient Egypt were not followers of any Judeo-Christian religion but were mainly polytheists, and in the eyes of Christian Westerners, this qualified them as sinners. This little bit of knowledge swept across the European continent and was also reflected in Ozymandias when the poem says, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” (10-11). There are two possible interpretations that might have provoked shock and even anger in the minds of Christian Europeans; and they might have also contributed to their idea that it was imperative to save them from themselves. One of those interpretations is that those ancient Egyptians, like Ramesses II, were worshiping multiple gods and were then elevating themselves to the rank of gods by calling themselves “King of Kings” based upon their mighty works. That in itself is blasphemy enough in the eyes and ears of Christians. However, the second interpretation, the more provocative of the two, is that Ramesses (Ozymandias) was not only saying that he was elevated above other Egyptian gods, but that he was elevating himself above the Hebrew God. Rodenbeck mentions in his article that among western societies, “the name Ramesses would have been recognized only by readers of the Bible…” (123). If the only way that those Western people had ever hear of Ramesses, or Ozymandias, was through their biblical knowledge of the exodus of Hebrew people after their escape from a tyrannical Pharaoh who had allegedly challenged God’s station, then it is unproblematic to see how the presumption of Egyptians as sinners is not implausible and would have contributed a great deal to the Western need to degrade the East. Was it in Shelley’s repertoire to make Egypt sound like a place full of religious transgression? Again, probably not; especially since he was very publically an atheist himself. However, other Western societies have been able to take works such as his to sway people about the hedonistic ways of Eastern people and their need for salvation through colonization.
So what is the West’s ultimate judgment about Eastern and Middle-Eastern cultures as pertaining to their destinies? This is something that might be best explained by a close analysis of the ending lines of the poem in question. “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, / The lone and level sands stretch far away.” (12-14). The entire poem uses a great deal of imagery that describes the statue of Ozymandias as broken or in ruins. However, line twelve specifically refers to it as being in a state of decay. Could this be because, decisively, what the people of Western heritage and Christian background believe to be the unquestionable destiny for an Eastern society is that it should forever remain in decay due to its hedonistic and uncivilized ways? That seems to be the most plausible explanation. And what do we make of the “colossal wreck?” It seems that this is a major judgment of ancient Egyptian civilization, since its Pharaohs were supposed to have been vain and their tyrannical kingships were in the end futile. The only legacy that many of those colonialists might have seen for Egypt and interpreted from this poem is that of a colossal wreck of a society which ended because of its unfortunate existence before the Europeans could intervene and save it. In regard to the endless miles of lone and endless level sands, we can interpret the “level” as the unavoidable downfall of Egyptian civilization, but Derek Gregory also says that Said’s “imaginative geographies” pertained to “place, space and landscape that dramatize distance and difference in such a way that ‘our’ space is divided and demarcated from ‘their’ space.” (29), meaning that the long stretches of sand were written in to make it obvious that Westerners are not only physically far, but also far from ever being the same way as the “others.” Yes, this is a very dangerous and demeaning Orientalist interpretation of such a poem. It was very likely not the intention of Percy Bysshe Shelley, when he wrote Ozymandias, to pass ultimate judgment on the ancient civilization by which he was fascinated enough to write a poem. However, other people of Western societies might have been able to very easily draw from poems such as his to make their cases that these Eastern societies were headed towards doom unless they made their entrance and saved them all.
So is it really so terrible to write about Asian and Middle-Easter cultures through the Western lens? Edward Said’s Orientalism says that literature, art, music, and even film which depict the East can sometimes be demeaning and even dangerous. Although many people say that literature and other works depicting the East are only done with honest and sincere fascination, the truth is that many times those authors and artists can depict the East in a very slanted and negative way. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias is one such poem which, although the author seems to have had no ill motivation, can be interpreted to say that ancient Egyptians, and colonial-period Egyptians by extension, were barbarians, passionate in their anger and lust for power, sinful hedonists, and eventually doomed due to all of their uncivilized ways of life. People may continue to debate the validity of Said’s theory, but in the mean time, the West might do well to try and be sensitive and aware of what and how they express themselves about the East.
Greenblatt, Stephen. "Percy Bysshe Shelley." Ed. M. H. Abrams. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Eighth ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. 1731-734. Print.
Gregory, Derek. "Between the Book and the Lamp; Imaginative Geographies of Egypt, 1849-1850."Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series 20.1 (1995): 29-57.JSTOR. Web. 12 May 2010.
"Intelligence." Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Merriam-Webster. Web. 15 May 2010.
Leoni, Stefano A. E. "Western Middle-East Imagery in the Face of Napoleon's Enterprise in Egypt: From Mere Eurocentric Exoticism, to Very Organized Orientalistic Ears." International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music December 38.2 (2007): 171-96. JSTOR. Web. 12 May 2010.
Lowens, Irving. "Review: Ozymandias by Richard Bales." Music Library Association 11.3 (1954): 448. JSTOR. Web. 12 May 2010.
Rodenbeck, John. "Travelers from an Antique Land: Shelley's Inspiration for "Ozymandias"" Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics Archeology of Literature: Tracing Th Old in the New.24 (2004): 121-48. JSTOR. Web. 11 May 2010.
Shelley, Percy B. "Ozymandias." Ed. Greenblatt Stephen. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Eighth ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. 1741. Print.