Inside Napoleon’s monument, the Arc de Triomphe, I saw a foot. The foot stood (if one foot can stand, disembodied) on a small plinth. It had a carved date, 1836.
Looking back through these photos, I was struck by a memory. In primary school one of the first poems I remember reading was ‘Ozymandius‘, by Percy Bysshe Shelley. I suppose I was ten years old, or thereabouts. But what a poem to read.
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”.
Napoleon himself, of course, brought many things to France from the deserts of Egypt, so the memory is all the more poignant. But what I recall the most is the blinding and powerful understanding of what irony really means, how deep and profound it can be.
Where can one begin? To analyse the poem so rarely does it justice. If Ozymandias is the cause of despair, it is the transitory nature of his worldy empire that would engender the feeling. His works are gone, but what we see, mediated by Shelley’s words are the sculptor’s tribute, the work of “The hand that mocked”. The words carved into the base of the statue have a permanence that the conquests of the Pharaoh did not have – echoed further by Shelley’s own words which still evoke such responses.
To a bookish child (was I?), with an avid interest in ancient items (I still have a handle from an amphora, a gift from my grandmother, who used to dig things up) this engagement with the ostentatious deployment of irony was all but revelatory.
And to a bookish adult (am I?), it still is.
Photo by PJD, Arc de Triomphe, Paris. Do you remember your first taste of irony? Indeed, of any literary device? Metaphor perhaps, metonymy*, simile? Has poetry of prose ever suddenly struck you, a bolt from nowhere? Would you like to tell us about it? We’d like to hear…*we are all ears.