Aug. 4, 2009


by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveler 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.

"Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Public domain. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, (books by this author) born in Sussex, England (1792). One of his most famous poems is "Ozymandias," which he composed in 1818 as part of a sonnet-writing competition against his friend Horace Smith, who wrote a similarly themed sonnet. Shelley's famous poem begins:

"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 shatter'd visage lies …"

Shelley was the 18th-century equivalent of what today might be called a "trust fund baby": His father was rich, landed, a member of the aristocracy and of Parliament, and had a huge inheritance set aside for his young son. Shelley went to prestigious English schools, but though he was rich, he was not at all popular. In fact, his high school classmates went out of their way to torment him: They concocted what they called "Shelly-baits," where they ganged up on him, snatched his schoolbooks from his arms, tore at his clothes until he started screaming and crying, and then let him go for the day, only to repeat the ordeal the next.

He enrolled at Oxford University. He almost never attended class, but he sat in his room and read all day, sometimes 16 hours a day. He wrote a Gothic novel while he was there, Zastrozzi (1810) — he was 18 when it was published — and then the next year, he wrote a pamphlet called "The Necessity of Atheism." The deans got a hold of the pamphlet, summoned and questioned him, and expelled him from Oxford. His rich, respectable father showed up at the school to intervene on his son's behalf. Oxford's deans gave Shelley the option of staying at university if he recanted the views that had gotten him in trouble. He refused, and got in a fight with his father over it.

A few months later, the 19-year-old Shelley eloped to Scotland with a 16-year-old girl, the daughter of a English pub owner. For this, his father disinherited him. They lived a nomadic life. He spent time in Ireland trying to get peasants to revolt. His marriage was not a happy one, and he often traveled alone abroad to escape his wife. Three years after eloping, he abandoned his pregnant wife and their toddler son. He ran off with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who would eventually become his wife, Mary Shelley, and the author of Frankenstein.

He and Mary and her stepsister took off for Europe, settling in Switzerland. But within weeks, they were homesick and out of money, and so they headed back to England. Mary's stepsister, Claire, had started a love affair with the poet Lord Byron, but Byron had lost interest in her. Byron and Percy Shelley became good friends, and in many ways, Byron was Shelley's muse: Their conversations helped inspire Shelley to write prolific amounts of poetry.

Still now only in his 20s, Shelley continued to write lots of poetry. He wrote "Adonis," an elegy for his friend John Keats; "Prometheus Unbound," a drama in verse; and The Cenci, a tragedy. A month shy of his 30th birthday, he drowned in his schooner, the Don Juan, which during a storm sank between Livorno and Lerici. His decomposed, fish-eaten body washed ashore, and because of quarantine laws, it had to be cremated. Shelley's ashes were placed at Rome's Cemetery for Non-Catholic Foreigners, near an ancient pyramid replica and near the grave of his friend, poet John Keats.

Percy Shelley said: "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world."
And, "Chameleons feed on light and air: Poets' food is love and fame."

And he wrote,
"Nothing in the world is single,
All things by a law divine
In one another's being mingle —
Why not I with thine?"

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook

The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning
An interview with Jeffrey Harrison at The Writer's Almanac Bookshelf
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show
O, What a Luxury

Although he has edited several anthologies of his favorite poems, O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound forges a new path for Garrison Keillor, as a poet of light verse. Purchase O, What a Luxury »