Parthenon Marbles, Head of Ramesses II, and R. S. Thomas’s “Tragic Sense of Life”

Parthenon marbles

From the Parthenon marbles, The British Museum

Panel after marble panel of the Parthenon friezes followed me as I walked around the Duveen Gallery of the British Museum: in-your-face male nudity, horses in motion, a spectrum of emotions preserved in stone-carved faces.

There the men stand, panel by panel, assertively penile in victory, less assertively so in defeat.

For centuries, the culture that produced these works of art was triumphant, then it slipped into decay and, ultimately, into being conquered – something that the Greek dramatists knew was inevitable, for “Nothing gold can stay.”

The Greeks sensed the flaw that inheres in all human greatness, the Achilles heel of all human glory.

R. S. Thomas, who studied Greek and Latin literature at university, recognizes that . . .

On the smudged empires the dust
Lies and in the libraries
Of the poets. The flowers wither
On love’s grave. This is what
Life is, . . .

Also, as RS sees it, to live is to witness . . .

. . . the slow chemistry of the soil
that turns saints’ bones to dust,
dust to an irritant of the nostril.

I basketed lines such as those in what I called the Greek tragic sense of life, which I turned into a question for RS when we talked on a November afternoon in 1994. Replying, he said that the phrase was mine not his; that he owed his sense of life to Yeats’ epitaph, Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias,” and Unamuno, whose most famous book (which RS did not mention) is titled Tragic Sense of Life.

Ozymandias takes me back to the British Museum, where I saw the ginormous (it weighs 7.25 tons) head of Ramesses II, which, when Shelley heard about its imminent arrival in England, inspired him to write “Ozymandias”:

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.

ozymandiasOzymandias is a Greek transliteration of one of the throne names of Pharaoh Ramesses II – Ramesses the Great (ruled from 1279 to 1213 BC), a wide-ranging conqueror and the builder of cities, temples, and monuments. But since “Nothing gold can stay,” his sculpted head is now a featured attraction in the British Museum.

If R. S. Thomas were to write a poem about Ramesses’ head, I think he’d suggest that the British Empire once had an Ozymandias complex. Would he then foresee the massive structures in Washington, DC, standing waist-deep in the waters of a river that, because of global warming, was becoming an estuary?


Poetry quoted in this post:

“Nothing gold can stay” – “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost, The Poetry of Robert Frost, 222.

“On the smudged empires the dust” – “Because,” Pietà (1966), 8.

“the slow chemistry of the soil” – “Pilgrimages,” Frequencies (1978), 51.

“I met a traveller from an antique land” – “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, The New Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1950 (1972), 580.


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