Viral Days

The Sculptor vs. the Poet

Marble can be toppled, yet words are eternal

By A. E. Stallings | July 13, 2020
Lion of Chaironeia (Woodhouse Archive/Flickr)
Lion of Chaironeia (Woodhouse Archive/Flickr)

“I am not a sculptor,” wrote Pindar in the fifth century B.C., at the beginning of his Fifth Nemean Ode, “to fashion statues that stand around doing nothing, each stuck on its self-same base.” Rather, he makes “sweet song” that can board every ship and fly in all directions at once, proclaiming its news: in this case, the victory of a certain Pytheas at the no-holds-barred boxing match called the “pancratium” at the Nemean Games. Some athletes were indeed honored with statues to commemorate their victories, but such memorials were single and stationary and subject to all the insults of time. Pindar’s poem wings its way unscathed over the centuries, and now is disseminated not only on paper, but electronically, across the Internet, all over the world. You can access it with a click of a button.

It turns out that poetry and sculpture have a long history of vying for top honors as modes of memorial. I have been thinking of this a lot these past days, with the removal of statues so much in the news, along with the subsequent debate about how and what we commemorate. It is an old argument, in which poetry tends to get the last word. (There are, of course, sculptors who are poets and poets who are sculptors: Michelangelo might have been known primarily as a sonneteer, had he not been such a star in the visual arts. The contemporary poet Meredith Bergman is also a sculptor, currently at work on a statue group of Women’s Rights Pioneers in Central Park, the first such depiction in the park, believe it or not, of a non-fictive woman.)

Take Horace’s Ode 3.30, which begins, “I have built a monument more lasting than bronze / and higher than the royal edifice of the pyramids,” which neither weathering rain nor wind nor years has been able to destroy. Is it perhaps somewhat tongue in cheek, more lighthearted than its opening would appear? Yet here the poem stands, as fresh as the day it was composed, sometime in the first century B.C., shrugging off the dust of years.

Shakespeare’s sonnets also like to assert the relative stamina of verse:

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmear’d with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.

Statues only seem permanent. Reputation, however, is preserved not in a stone or brazen image, but in language, which continually revives by being read and spoken through the mouths of the living, phrases that may pass, translated, into tongues that didn’t even exist when they were composed.

A reputation may erode, leaving the monument to it bereft of its anchoring grandeur, in a state of ironic disrepair. Shelley’s “Ozymandias” (1818) is the locus classicus here:

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.

That the sculptor “reads” the pharaoh’s passions, and “stamps” them on the lifeless things, is telling. In the inscription, the statue speaks, in the first person, but his words have come to mean the opposite of his intention. It is noteworthy that even news of this has to be brought to the poet by a “traveller.” The “traveller” happens to be the first-century B.C. historian Diodorus Siculus, whose description of the statue and the inscription inspires Shelley and also Horace Smith (see below). So in a sense the “traveller” is not a person, but a written text, which has journeyed not only from a storied land, but also through time, from antiquity itself.

The poem may have been partly inspired by the British Museum’s acquisition (I’ll leave that vague term for the present) of a fragment of a huge statue of Ramses II (Ozymandias being the Greek for “Ramses”)—yet another layer of irony, as the statue’s grim visage, depicted as unmoved in its ancient situ against a backdrop of the sands of time, is en route to London on a ship even as Shelley writes.

Not all poems about statues are immortal, or somehow more permanent than the statues they address. Shelley’s contemporary Horace Smith wrote a poem on the same subject (both it and “Ozymandias” resulted from a sonnet competition between the poets). Smith’s sonnet begins, somewhat unfortunately, “In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone, / Stands a gigantic Leg,” and it is remembered today only as a foil to Shelley’s masterpiece.

Resonantly, though, especially for our moment, Smith’s post-volta sestet imagines a future London where 19th-century statues are in a similar state of decay and anonymity. His image of a postapocalyptic London, where nature has returned and people are scarce, has an eerie quarantine quality to it now:

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.

One ponders who that “fragment huge” would be.

“Ozymandias” is the main influence on another famous sonnet on a statue—or rather, two statues, one vanished, known only by its descriptions, the other more recently erected, Emma Lazarus’s famed “The New Colossus” (1883) for the Statue of Liberty:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The “brazen giant of Greek fame” is the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Built in 280 BC to commemorate the successful resistance of a siege, it was a bronze statue of the sun god Helios that stood at about the same height as our Statue of Liberty, the largest such statue in the ancient world. It was toppled by an earthquake in 226 B.C. and left in “fragments huge.” The engineering triumph of the day, designed to last the ages, it stood for a mere 54 years.

The correspondences to Shelley’s poem are many, not least in the title “The New Colossus,” which harkens back to Shelley’s “colossal wreck,” but also in the phrasing: his “cold command” becomes “mild eyes command.” Other correspondences include “beacon-hand” and “ancient lands,” and then there are the silent lips that still speak, in the first person. Her name is not Ozymandias, but “Mother of Exiles.” Interestingly, she is not a figure from the past, but from the future tense, or perhaps an optimistic hortative mood: “Here at our sea-washed sunset gates shall stand.” The New World confronts the Old.

Emma Lazarus hailed from a large Sephardic Jewish family and was active in the cause of Jewish refugees fleeing Russia. The current administration is not fond of the welcoming message this poem conveys, and in August 2019 in an interview with NPR, Ken Cuccinelli, acting head of Citizenship and Immigration Services, was asked, “Would you also agree that Emma Lazarus’s words etched on the Statue of Liberty, ‘Give me your tired, give me your poor,’ are also a part of the American ethos?” “They certainly are,” Cuccinelli responded. “Give me your tired and your poor—who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”

Those clunky lines do not rhyme or scan, and this off-the-cuff and, one hopes, facetious suggestion could never be implemented. A poem, unlike a statue, doesn’t need to stand on its own two feet—it wings its way into the world in all directions at once. In a metaphor that Pindar might have appreciated, it can “go viral.” It can be lost in the transmission of time, but it cannot be dismantled. As Robert Frost says, “The utmost of ambition [of the poet] is to lodge a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of.” To be widely anthologized, widely disseminated on the Internet, makes a poem a flame almost impossible to extinguish.

Or as Pindar might say, that ship has sailed.

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