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Travelers from an antique land: Shelley's inspiration for "Ozymandias".

An enduring myth about artists of all kinds is that work arises from personal physical experience. A case in point is Shelley's great political sonnet "Ozymandias," which is conventionally presumed to have been "inspired" by an ancient Egyptian sculpture. Shelley never traveled to Egypt and thus certainly never saw the landscape he describes in his sonnet. Contrary to popular belief, moreover, he likewise never saw the sculptured head allegedly described in the sonnet, which did not arrive in England until a day or two after he and his family had moved permanently to Italy and more than six months after he had published the poem. All the sources and influences visible in the poem were entirely literary and all were part of the common currency of the era. Apart from Diodorus Siculus and the political sonnets of Milton and Wordsworth, they include several classics of travel literature in English and French, most notably the work of Volney.


This article concentrates on one of the greatest and most famous poems in the English language, Shelley's masterly sonnet "Ozymandias," and deals with three areas of inquiry: 1) the sources of the poem in contemporary travel literature, 2) its meaning, and 3) what its sources and meaning tell us about the nature of "poetic inspiration."

Travel literature offers experience to the entirety of a literate public and for that reason alone has historically had far greater cultural impact than the experience of mere travel itself, which can only be individual and private. To take one small and suggestive example: the two most popular manuscript texts of the late Middle Ages were probably Mandeville's Travels and Marco Polo's Description of the World. Like Herodotus' Histories, these two books are literary compilations, rather than simple records or observations, and as such they quite rightly include fictional elements. It was inevitable that they should have been among the earliest European best-sellers in print, anticipating by many decades the great Renaissance collections of Ramusio and Hakluyt. (1)

But what were the needs they obviously fulfilled? The question cannot begin to be answered until we bear in mind that they inspired not only More's Utopia--the fountainhead of an artistic lineage that includes major works of Rabelais, Cervantes, Bacon, Swift, Defoe, Voltaire, Melville, Twain, Shaw, Wells, Huxley, Orwell, Nabokov, and Calvino, not to mention V. S. Naipaul, Paul Theroux and J. G. Ballard--but also Columbus' voyage in search of the Indies.

In the case of Shelley's "Ozymandias" the fact that the poem has nothing to do with the poet/speaker's personal physical experience is announced by the first line, which tells us explicitly that the person who had the fictive experience that the poem uses as its central metaphor was not the poet-speaker at all, but "a traveler":

 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 shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
 5 And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
 Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
 Which yet survive--stamp'd on these lifeless things--
 The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed;
 And on the pedestal these words appear:
 10 '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."

The name Ozymandias is a Greek rendition of "cUser-macat-rec," the first element in the praenomen or throne name of the ancient Egyptian king now usually known instead by his Ra-name as Ramesses II (1279-1212 B.C.). His mortuary temple was definitively identified at long last by Jean Francois Champollion (1790-1832) in 1829. it has been known since as the Ramesseum, and of course still stands on the West Bank at Luxor. (2) The career of this great king, however, was utterly unknown in Shelley's day. Even the name Ramesses would have been recognized only by readers of the Bible and then only as the Hebrew name of an Egyptian city mentioned in Genesis 47.11 and Exodus 1.11, not as the name of a king. Like all his contemporaries, Shelley thus possessed nothing that approaches an ordinary twenty-first-century schoolboy's knowledge of the pharaoh who had boasted the throne name "cUser-macat-rec" three millennia before.

At no time before he wrote the sonnet could Shelley possibly have seen any sculptured head comparable to the one his fictional traveler describes unless he had actually gone to Egypt. In common with all the other English Romantic poets, however, either major and minor, Shelley never set foot in the Land of the Pharaohs, though many of his non-literary contemporaries did so. (3) Nor is there any record, indeed, of his ever even contemplating such a visit. It is therefore quite impossible that "Ozymandias" could have been inspired by any first-hand experience of the poet's involving either its Egyptian setting or a fortiori any decayed colossal sculpture within that setting. There is abundant evidence, in fact, that inspirations for his Egyptian or quasi-Egyptian allusions not only in this sonnet, but also in other works were entirely and exclusively literary.

The two most crucial lines of the sonnet and the name Ozymandias were borrowed from a well-known ancient Greek source, Diodorus Siculus. Among Shelley's other literary sources, the most obvious are works that were virtually contemporary: Volney's Voyage en Syrie et en Egypte, pendant les annees 1783, 1784, et 1785, published first in 1787 and often reprinted; his Les Ruines, ou Meditations sur revolutions des empires, first published in 1791, an enormously influential work that circulated throughout Europe and was one of the building blocks of Shelley's mind: and Vivant Denon's Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte, which appeared in 1802, when Shelley was 10 and became, next perhaps to Lane's Manners and Customs, the most popular and successful book of Egyptology ever published, a staple of any well-furnished gentleman's library throughout the Romantic era. (4) A fourth possible source is Richard Pococke's extraordinary Description of the East, an important and justly famous two-volume opus that contained 178 large plates. (5) And a fifth is the celebrated Description de l'Egypte (1809 [1810]-1829), several volumes of which were already circulating among well-heeled enthusiasts in England. (6)

The great sonnet was published on 11 January 1818. It had apparently been written barely two weeks earlier. The occasion of its composition is now well known. (7) At his house near Marlowe on Saturday 27 December 1817, the day after Boxing Day, Shelley entertained Horace Smith (1779-1849), whom he had met at Leigh Hunt's the previous year. Smith was equally talented as a financier, a verse parodist, and an author of historical novels. The talk seems to have drifted around to Egyptian antiquity and to Diodorus Siculus, whose arrogant epitaph ascribed to Ozymandias "had become virtually a commonplace in the romantic period;" (8) and a friendly competition ensued in which each writer was to produce a sonnet on the subject of "Ozymandias, the King of Kings." Smith came up with the following:
 On a Stupendous Leg of Granite,
 Discovered Standing by itself
 in the Deserts of Egypt,
 with the Inscription Inserted Below

 In Egypt's sandy silence, all alone,
 Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
 The only shadow that the Desert knows.
 "I am great Ozymandias," saith the stone.
 "The King of Kings; this mighty city shows
 The wonders of my hand." The city's gone!
 Naught but the leg remaining to disclose
 The sight of that forgotten Babylon.
 We wonder, and some hunter may express
 Wonder like ours, when through the wilderness
 Where London stood, holding the wolf in chase,
 He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
 What wonderful, but unrecorded race
 Once dwelt in that annihilated place. (9)

Horace Smith may well have seen the depiction of just such a monumental Pharaonic leg in plate 38 of Volume I of Richard Pococke's A Description of the East and some other Countries. Rich and Egyptophile, he almost certainly owned a copy of this work, the most frequently cited in pioneering Egyptology.

He may also have owned copies of some of the earlier volumes of "the great French work," the Description de l'Egypte, which was still in the course of publication, and he may have shown them to Shelley. It is among the plates of the Description, for example---a view of a colossus standing near the entrance to the hypostyle hall at Karnak--that Shelley could have found his own "vast and trunkless legs of stone." (10) Or he could, of course, simply have imagined them. What Shelley produced, in any case, was the first draft of "Ozymandias," which was published with minimal changes two weeks later on page 24 of number 524 of Leigh Hunt's The Examiner, where Hunt also published Horace Smith's sonnet a fortnight afterwards, on 25 January.

During that same month, January of 1818, the Quarterly Review (London) announced that Henry Salt's first shipment of Egyptian antiquities was on its way to the British Museum. The shipment included a colossal head that Giovanni Belzoni had extracted in 1816 from the ruins of a temple on the West Bank at Thebes and that was, the Quarterly Review declared, "without doubt the finest specimen of ancient Egyptian sculpture which has yet been discovered," (11) It is this head that is commonly supposed to have inspired Shelley, who is alleged to have seen it at the British Museum before he wrote his sonnet.

The vulgar error of believing that Shelley was inspired to write "Ozymandias" by the actual vision of an Egyptian monument or work of art--and specifically by the physical sight of this particular colossal Egyptian sculptured head--has lingered in full strength as a critical commonplace to this day. (12) Based upon that defective idea about art and artists that E. H. Gombrich specifically called "a heresy," (13) this superficially plausible folk thesis has seduced many an amateur critic and is totally fallacious. Shelley simply could not possibly have seen the head in question before he wrote his great sonnet.

The famous sculptured head that Giovanni Belzoni excavated in what he thought was the Memnonium was lowered into a boat from the West Bank of the Nile at Luxor on 17 November 1816. It took a month thereafter to float down the river to Cairo and another month to get to Alexandria, where it arrived in mid-January 1817. There it was stored in one of Muhammad cAli's warehouses to await an appropriate vessel sailing for England. The wait was a long one: it lasted through most of a year--the rest of winter, all of the following spring and summer, and half of autumn, 1817. Not until 17 October 1817 could Salt assure the Foreign Minister, Lord Castlereagh, that the head had finally been embarked, aboard the transport ship Nearchus, and was bound for Malta.

In Malta there was presumably the normal delay of several weeks for quarantine, a stringent control exercised over all Mediterranean traffic between Europe and the Ottoman Empire. At the end of this quarantine period the head was transferred to a Royal Navy storeship, the Weymouth, which was also burdened with antiquities from Leptis Magna. The precise date in December 1817 or January 1818 when the Weymouth eventually sailed from Malta is no doubt recorded somewhere; and it is probable that the January article in the Quarterly Review had optimistic reference to its departure. What is certain, however, is that it did not dock in England until March 1818, at least two months after Shelley's poem had already been published The letter from the Foreign Office and the Admiralty notifying the British Museum of its arrival is dated 14 March 1818--just two days after Shelley and his entire household had left England forever to settle permanently in Italy,

The itineraries of the poet and the Egyptian head that is alleged to have been his inspiration make it clear that they never crossed paths. In December 1817, the time when it is supposed to have influenced Shelley's poem, Belzoni's head was either stored on a ship in the harbor at Valetta or somewhere at sea. The poet could not possibly have seen the head before he wrote the poem and he probably never saw it at all.

There were, of course, still further delays. The British Museum did not bother to appoint a sub-committee to decide how to exhibit it until 9 May 1818; (14) and it was probably not actually displayed for the first time until late in 1818, while Shelley and his family were busily traveling from place to place in Italy. Not until November 1818 did Salt himself finally receive word in Alexandria that his shipment had actually arrived safely. Shelley's friend Keats, a fellow Egyptophile and a fervent habitue of the British Museum, apparently saw the head for the first time early in 1819, remarking, "I had not seen it before." (15) Shelley could conceivably have sneaked back into England sometime between then and his death in 1822 for the specific purpose of paying a visit incognito to the British Museum. But such a visit, unrecorded anywhere, seems enormously unlikely.

Shelley obviously either had no idea what Belzoni's prize looked like, moreover, or found the information irrelevant when he wrote his poem. His fictional statue has a "wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command," for example, whereas Belzoni described the real head as "smiling upon me, at the thought of being taken away to England." The head of Ozymandias in the Description de l'Egypte, which Shelley also might well have seen, shows the same benignly smiling countenance Belzoni describes--though probably at that point in time delighted with the idea of being taken away to France, rather than England--likewise utterly unlike the depiction Shelley describes in his poem. (16)

In any case, even if Shelley could actually have seen this head before he wrote his poem he would almost certainly not have been inspired to write a poem about it as a portrait head of Ozymandias, since almost no one among his contemporaries in England recognized it as such. Out of the deficiencies of contemporary British scholarship a mistaken identification had already arisen that would prevail among English scholars for at least 20 more years. Unable to read hieroglyphics and badly misled by an eighteenth-century toponymical tradition--according to which the Ramesseum was identified as a Memnonium, a temple to the son of Tithonus by the Hellenic dawn goddess Eos--Belzoni, Salt, and the experts of the Museum itself had all decided to call the fragmentary statue "Young Memnon." It still bears this erroneous designation in the British Museum inventory list, along with its original acquisition number, 19. (17)

Publication of the sonnet was obviously timed by Hunt to capitalize on public excitement in anticipation of the arrival of Salt's collection at the British Museum; and enthusiasm for things ancient and Egyptian continued for several weeks in the circle around Hunt and The Examiner. "Ozymandias" had been the result of a light-hearted sonnet-writing contest arising out of this enthusiasm; and on 4 February 1818 Leigh Hunt challenged Shelley and Keats to yet another such competition on yet another Egyptian subject: "The Nile." The agreed time limit--fifteen minutes--was adhered to by Keats and Shelley, but Hunt became intrigued by his task, cheated, and worked on for several hours past the time limit. The results were a couple of perfunctory self-parodies by Keats and Shelley, who adverted, obviously uninspired, to stereotypical themes, and a somewhat better one by Hunt, which contains not only a good phrase or two, but also one delightful line characterizing Cleopatra as "the laughing queen that caught the world's great hands."

That Shelley was interested in ancient Egypt had been clearly announced years earlier in his first major poem, the lengthy verse narrative Alastor, with its references to pyramids, obelisks, sphinxes, and ruined temples with "stupendous columns and wild images/Of more than man, where marble daemons watch/The Zodiac's brazen mystery." (18) Pyramids reappear and are put to metaphorical use in his great philosophical poem "Mont Blanc," written the following year. And they appear yet again in Laon and Cythna, a political and philosophical allegory, later transformed into The Revolt of Islam, which he worked on between April and September of 1817, shortly before writing "Ozymandias." Similar aegyptiaca turn up later in his masterpiece Prometheus Unbound, written in 1818-1819.

Diodorus Siculus, the ancient source used by Shelley and his friend Horace Smith in their sonnet-writing contest, was a Sicilian, as his cognomen tells us, and was contemporary with Julius Caesar. He wrote his forty-volume Rome-centered history of the world in Greek, the common tongue not only of Sicily, Southern Italy, the Balkans, Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt and most of North Africa, but also of the Roman elite. Mrs. Shelley's note on the year tells us that in fact Shelley's reading throughout 1817 was "chiefly Greek." She mentions specifically the Iliad, Aeschylus and Sophocles, the Homeric Hymns, Plato, and Arrian, and it is possible that he and Horace Smith found themselves reading Diodorus at the same time. (19) Nor were Shelley and Horace Smith by any means the only contemporary English readers of Diodorus, who was a cultural touchstone for their generation. (20) It is thus hardly astonishing that in contemporary issues of The Annals of the Fine Arts, John Elmes should have rejected the prevailing identification of the head that Salt and Belzoni had brought to England as "Young Memnon" and speculated that it might belong instead to the statue of Ozymandias that had been described by Diodorus. (21)

Elmes's quaint speculation, as it happens, was absolutely correct, since the statue to which the head belonged was indeed one of two colossi of Ramesses II that had still survived in the ruins of the structure we now call the Ramesseum. (22) Diodorus' description of the Ramesseum was composed near the end of the first century BC, over a thousand years after the temple was completed. "At the entrance," he says,
 stand three statues, each of one entire stone, the workmanship
 of Memnon of Sienitas. One of these, made in a
 sitting position, is the greatest in all Egypt, the measure
 of his foot exceeding seven cubits; the one standing on
 the right, and the other on his left, being his daughter and
 mother. This piece is not only commendable for its greatness,
 but admirable for its cut and workmanship and the
 excellency of the stone. In so great a work there is not to
 be discerned the least flaw or any other blemish. Upon it
 there is this inscription: "I am Ozymandias, king of kings;
 if any would know how great I am, and where I lie, let
 him exceed me in any of my works." (23)

The entire statue, more or less as described by Diodorus, was actually still intact, though prostrate, when the Danish naval officer Friderik Ludwig Norden saw it in 1738; and its lower section remains in situ in the Ramesseum today. The head that was brought to England by Belzoni and given by Salt to the British Museum does indeed carry the upper portions of two columns of inscriptions that are completed on this lower section. (24) The fact that neither of these inscriptions precisely matches Diodorus' text is used to argue that Diodorus himself never actually visited the Ramesseum. But on the upper-right arm, part of the lower section left behind by Belzoni, this statue carries a cartouche saying "[sup.C]User-[ma.sup.C]at-[re.sup.C]"--i.e., Ozymandias--accompanied by a laudatory epithet, "Sun of Princes," which, with reference to Egyptian beliefs, could also conceivably be translated or glossed as "King of Kings." (25)

Diodorus himself would hardly have been able to read any Egyptian inscription in any case and would therefore have had to rely either on a Greek-speaking guide or a text that purported to offer translation into Greek. The accuracy or otherwise of his version of the inscription thus neither proves nor disproves whether or not he really walked over the site. He certainly consulted a variety of written sources and seems to have visited Egypt personally and seen its major cities, as well as such monuments as were then visible. (26) And a distinguished French scholar has observed that even if he did not visit the Ramesseum personally, whatever sources he used were not only trustworthy, but quite precise. (27)

It is the words that Diodorus says were inscribed on the statue that are in any case ironically paraphrased in Shelley's sonnet as lines 10 and 11: "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:/Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair." Shelley's version transforms the pharaoh's declaration from the triumphant boast of a successful despot into a commentary on the transitory nature of all earthly power.

The sonnet says nothing about any temple or temple entrance, however, not even in ruins, and in fact the poet creates a natural setting altogether different from the ancient building described by Diodorus: a bleak featureless desert landscape where "lone and level sands stretch far away." This setting is vital to the poem, since its theme or meaning requires that it evoke for us a place in which, apart from the portrait statue of the tyrant, all other physical evidence of an empire shall have disappeared without a trace.

The most obvious influence at work here--thematic and philosophical, as well as topographical--is that of Constantin-Francois Chasseboeuf, comte de Volney (1757-1820), best known to some of us as the author of a Voyage en Syrie et en Egypte, the book that was purportedly the chief inspiration for Bonaparte's invasions of Egypt and Syria. Volney surveys these two Ottoman provinces in terms of their political economy rather than their historical monuments and advises anyone interested in mere physical detail to read earlier European travel writers--John Greaves (1602-1652), Benoit de Maillet (1656-1738), Paul Lucas (1664-1737), Pere Sicard (1676-1726), Dr. Thomas Shaw (1694-1751) Richard Pococke (1704-1765), Norden (1708-1742), and Carsten Niebuhr (1733-1815)--and one contemporary: Claude-Etienne Savary (1750-1788). (28) So much did Bonaparte love the book that copies of it accompanied him both to Cairo in 1798 and to St. Helena in 1815. (29)

Volney's Les Ruines, ou meditations sur les revolutions des empires, published four years after the Voyage, was even more important. (30) "Said to have been the best-seller of the Revolutionary period," remarks one scholar, "it offered a strange, but characteristic blend of science, philosophy, and theology in its attack on religion and metaphysics, and in its championing of atheistic humanism as the foundation for future human happiness." (31) Shelley had read Les Ruines and had already absorbed it into his own intellectual being long before he wrote "Ozymandias," as is evidenced by Alastor, which he wrote in 1815. Professor Ian Jack has remarked that the hero of Alastor is specifically a Volneyan creation--a "child of grace and genius" who
 leaves his 'alienated home' and travels across the world,
 musing on the present and past and coming to understand
 The thrilling secrets of the birth of time.

 He is a Rasselas without a sister or an Imlac, a Rasselas
 who has read Volney's Ruins. (32)

The abstractly Egyptian paraphernalia of Alastor have nothing at all to do with the authentic history of Egyptology. Shelley's generalized references to pyramids, obelisks, sphinxes, and ruined temples clearly owe a great deal less to direct observation than they do to the ontological legacy of the Enlightenment and its concern with "general ideas," a facet of that complex of epistemological attitudes that followed naturally upon Locke's sensationalism, Hartley's Associationism, and Hume's analysis of convention. Shelley, as Professor Jack suggests, found this legacy most powerfully distilled in its French versions, especially as formulated in Ideologie, the official philosophy of the French Revolution. (33) Volney was one of the most prominent of the Ideologues and his Ruines is one of the primary texts of Ideologie.

The first edition of Les Ruines (Paris: Desenne, 1791) was followed the next year by publication in English as the Ruins of Empires, the title by which Shelley and his Anglophone contemporaries referred to it. (34) The meaning of Volney's title is explained and its theme as a whole is implied in the invocation Volney set at the head of the text:
 I salute you, solitary ruins, sacred tombs, silent walls! It
 is you I invoke, you to whom I address my prayer! Yes!
 Though the sight of you may affright the gaze of the
 vulgar-minded with an unknown dread, in contemplation of
 you my heart finds the charm of deep emotion and high
 thought. How many useful lessons, how many tender or
 powerful ideas do you not afford the mind that knows
 how to pay heed to you! It is you, when the entire earth
 stood submissive and mute before tyrants, who were
 already at work proclaiming the truths they detest, and
 who, making no difference between the ultimate dispossession
 of kings and that of the lowest slave, bore witness
 to the sacred dogma of EQUALITY. (35)

Pulling together as it does several long-established cultural postures and attitudes and knitting them neatly into the political ethos of the Revolution, Ruins of Empires answered brilliantly a felt intellectual need and enjoyed a well-deserved Europe-wide vogue lasting at least four decades. It was central to the evolution of Romanticism from a specifically English and insular aesthetic attitude to a universal political and philosophical force. The principles Volney saw expressed in ruins were thus to re-emerge a quarter of a century later not only in poems like "Ozymandias," but in all the best of Shelley's work. In "Mont Blanc" (1816) for example, it is precisely because of its total alienation from the sentimentalities of mankind that
 The wilderness has a mysterious tongue
 Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild,
 So solemn, so serene, that man may be,
 But for such a faith, with nature reconciled.
 Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal
 Large codes of fraud and woes, not understood
 By all, but which the wise, and great, and good
 Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel. (11.76-83)

Likewise in "Ode to the West Wind" (1819), the autumnal wind is a metaphor for that "Wild Spirit . . . destroyer and preserver," which despite repression and without revolution will inevitably bring in an ultimate era of social and political freedom and equality.

A related example of Volney's influence is provided by a well-known passage in the life and works of Byron. The first two Cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (March, 1812) which made Byron famous, are the versified record of the truncated Grand Tour he and John Cam Hobhouse undertook between 1809 and 1811. Compelled to circumvent French-occupied territory, Byron and his traveling companion thus also had to avoid the normal destinations of a Grand Tour, the recognized cultural capitals of Western Europe, which in those years were all in hostile hands, as French conquests or possessions. They compensated themselves by venturing around the fringes of Europe as far east as Constantinople. (36) When the two first Cantos were published they were rightly regarded as belonging to the realm of travel literature. Byron appended a full set of vivid and entertaining ethnographic, political, and historical annotations, which should never be omitted from any edition. In Canto III, however, which Byron wrote in Switzerland during the summer of 1816, a remarkable change takes place, which has been universally recognized as due to Shelley and thence to Volney.

Shelley spent the whole of that famous summer with Byron on the shore of Lake Geneva, accompanied by his own nineteen-year-old mistress, Mary Godwin, whom he would marry after the suicide of his first wife some months later, and by Mary's step-sister Claire Clairmont, one of Byron's incidental conquests and in fact pregnant since April with his lordship's second daughter. Throughout three hectically creative months Shelley enchanted Byron, who wrote Canto III of Childe Harold under his spell: and it was Shelley who in fact carried Byron's manuscript of Canto III back to London for delivery to his publisher, John Murray.

One of the most familiar stanzas of Canto III simply transfers a Volneyan vision of the ruins of an empire from Syria or Egypt to the battlefield of Waterloo, where a resurgent Bonaparte had been decisively defeated less than two years earlier and which Byron had just visited en route to Geneva.
 Stop!--for thy tread is on an Empire's dust!
 An Earthquake's spoil is sepulchered below!
 Is thy spot marked with no colossal bust?
 Nor column trophied for triumphal show?
 None: but the moral's truth tells simpler so.
 As the ground was before, thus let it be;--
 How that red rain hath made the harvest grow!
 And is this all the world has gain'd by thee,
 Thou first and last of fields! king-making Victory?
 (stanza xvii: 11. 1-9)

The reference to a "colossal bust" seems almost to anticipate "Ozymandias." The next stanza introduces Byron's justly famous description of the battle of Waterloo, which opens with a brilliant allusion to the Duchess of Richmond's ball on the eve of the battle at Quatre-Bras, two days before the final clash: "There was the sound of revelry by night." It was the combination, in passages like this one, of Volneyan substance with Byron's bravura manner that excited the imagination of three generations of educated Europeans as far east as Russia, who saw in Childe Harold another revealed text.

Mary Shelley's classic Frankenstein (1818) was a product of the same summer. Not surprisingly, Volney's Ruins of Empires figures in it as the fundamental basis of her fictive monster's historical and moral education. It fulfills a similarly significant role in her later novel, The Last Man, published in 1826, four years after Shelley's deaths. (37) "I can conceive him," said Thomas Love Peacock, Shelley's friend and the justest and most succinct of his critics,
 if he had lived to the present time, passing his days like
 Volney, looking on the world from his windows without
 taking part in its turmoils; and perhaps ... desiring that
 nothing should be inscribed on his tomb, but his name,
 the dates of his birth and death, and the single word

In addition to Diodorus and Volney, Shelley almost certainly knew the descriptions and drawings of Upper Egyptian ruins made between July and October of 1798 by Dominique Vivant, Baron Denon (1747-1825), diplomat, painter, pornographer, and spy, one of those figures who bridge the old and the new regimes. (39) Sprung from a family of Burgundian squires, he installed himself in Paris at the age of 25 and somehow caught the attention of Louis XV, who appointed him to the embassy in St. Petersburg. Expelled from Russia after two years, he next served the Bourbon monarchy in Sweden, Switzerland, and finally in the Kingdom of Naples, where he remained from 1776 to 1785. During these busy pre-Revolutionary years he also published the charming conte libertin called Point de lendemain in which, as Jean-Claude Vatin has said, "tout est dit, mais non decrit," and worked seriously as an artist, meanwhile holding two other lucrative and undemanding royal appointments. (40) In 1787 he was elected to the Academie de Peinture. The following year he published a Voyage en Sicile and retired, setting up house in Venice.

The Venetian authorities kept Denon under surveillance, however, and in 1792 he was finally expelled. He moved to Florence, but was allowed to stay only a year. In 1793 he therefore returned to France, now in the grip of the Terror, a gesture that indicated unequivocal support for the Republic, and put himself under the protection of David, who was both the chief painter of the fanatical party in power and a member of the Comite de Surete Generale. Denon was quite soon formally declared a good patriot and employed by the State in engraving David's designs for the official new Republican dress.

In 1798 Denon succeeded in wangling a berth among the savants accompanying Bonaparte's Egyptian Expedition. He was far older than most of the rest and far less clearly qualified, but his current mistress was a great friend of Josephine de Beauharnais, the future Empress, whose circle he now belonged to: and Bonaparte no doubt found some diversion in his conversation as well as a use for his intelligence skills. A little over a year later the same influence secured him something even more advantageous, an early return from Egypt in the company of Bonaparte and two other senior savants. Back in Paris thus two full years before the rest of the Commission, he made excellent use of the advantage he had gained and set to work immediately to render his Egyptian experience in graphic and literary form and to organize it for personal rather than official publication. (41) Meanwhile, however, fully sympathetic with the taste of his class and time, he produced CEuvres priapiques and Les Bigarrures, a series of pornographic prints published pseudonymously. (42) Then he had a fantastic stroke of luck.

From October 1801 to 18 May 1803 an official peace reigned between England and France. Commercial relations were resumed and the French government not only extended an amnesty to emigres, but also had the Calais-Paris road especially repaired and upgraded. English tourists swarmed over to Paris, where the famous Care des Anglais was created specifically for them and everything English became the fashion, while thousands of Frenchmen flocked to London and found everyone speaking French. The publication of Denon's illustrated record of his travels in Egypt in 1802--his Voyage dans la Basse el la Haute Egypte--became a major cultural event. In Paris quarto and duodecimo editions appeared simultaneously and in London there were simultaneous editions in both English and French. Other French and English editions followed within twelve months and within the following year there was even an American edition. (43) Denon's success was enormous; and it is quite unlikely, given his wealth and his interests, that Horace Smith did not own a copy, either in French or English, of his Voyage.

Denon's influence thus appears throughout the following era much more frequently than that, for example, of the Description de l'Egypte, both for good or for ill. His glib misidentification of the so-called Colossi of Memnon, for example, gave support to what was already a bad toponymical tradition of reference to the Ramesseum as "the Memnonium." Contributing to decades of confusion, this same bad tradition created unnecessary difficulties for Jollois and Devilliers, the two savants who had the task of writing about the Colossi and the Ramesseum for the Description de l'Egypte. It bedeviled Egyptology for the rest of the century and is obviously the chief reason why the Ramesseum still continues to be referred to occasionally as the Memnonium even today. (44)

Like all the other savants, Denon could not read hieroglyphics. (45) And since he could not read hieroglyphs, he was unable to identify the building he stood in, guessing only that it might be "either a temple or a palace or both at once." (46) Erroneously, he believed the remains of the huge statue he saw--which had been correctly identified by Diodorus nearly two millennia earlier, let us recall, as representing Ramesses II--to be the famous Colossus of Memnon, a work far more celebrated in ancient times than the Sphinx.

The monument known to us and to antiquity as the Colossus of Memnon is not this statue, of course, but a completely different one in a completely different place: the northernmost of the pair of statues of Amenhotep III that are a prominent landmark on the West Bank, currently called "the Colossi of Memnon" and standing just off the road leading to Madinat Habu and the Ramesseum from the present ferry-landing. (47) They are covered with testimonial inscriptions left behind by Hellenic and Roman tourists, which identify the northernmost one absolutely as the statue that ancient visitors thought was "Memnon."

Having already decided, however, that the enormous fragments he had just seen in the ruins of the building that he could not identify otherwise had to be the Colossus of Memnon, Denon was compelled to discover a different identity for these two statues. (48) Dimly recalling that the statue of Ozymandias had been described in some ancient source--i.e., Diodorus--as the center of a group of three, Denon decided that it had in fact disappeared, but must once have stood between these two seated figures, which therefore had to represent Ozymandias' mother and son.

The graffiti carved in Greek by Roman-period tourists were among the very few primary sources that Denon could possibly have read and would have corrected his mistake. His successors, in fact, made good use of them. (49) With cheerful arrogance, however, he dismissed them as nonsense.

"In the plain," he wrote,
 our attention was drawn to two great seated figures,
 between which, according to the descriptions of
 Herodotus, of Strabo, and of those who drew upon these
 two writers, stood the famous statue of Ozymandias, the
 largest of all the colossi: Ozymandias himself took such
 pride in the execution of so difficult an enterprise that he
 had an inscription carved on the pedestal of this statue in
 which he challenged humankind to destroy either this
 monument or his tomb. Such self-indulgence seems
 describable only as delusion. The two statues still standing
 are undoubtedly those of his mother and his son, who
 are mentioned by Herodotus; that of the king has disappeared.
 Time and jealousy having argued with envy over
 its destruction, all that remains is a shapeless lump of
 granite. It requires the stubborn gaze of the expert observer
 [le regard obstine de l'observateur accoutume a voir]
 to distinguish a few features that have escaped destruction,
 and even those are so meaningless that they can give
 no idea of its dimensions. (50)

Denon's rather pompous conjectures as to what he was looking at were additionally confused not only by his rejection of available first-hand evidence, but also by his defective use of ancient secondary sources. He cites both Herodotus and Strabo, for example, as having seen and described a colossal statue of Ozymandias, but neither Herodotus nor Strabo mentions Ozymandias/Ramesses II by any name, much less his mother and his son. Nor is there any description of the Ramesseum in either of these ancient authors. Strabo is indeed the first to describe the experience of hearing the famous noise emitted by the so-called Colossus of Memnon--this gratifying occasion took place, as is well known, when he toured the West Bank at Luxor with the entourage of Aelius Gallus, (51) the third Roman governor of Egypt--but he does not actually refer to the statue by any name at all.

Perhaps Denon was attempting to recall Diodorus' description of the Ramesseum--written four centuries later than Herodotus' Histories, but a few years earlier than Strabo's Geography--which identifies the sculptor who carved the three colossi that stood in the first court as one "Memnon of Sienitas." The name Ramesses, in any case, like the names of most ancient Egyptian kings, had certainly meant little to Diodorus and his contemporaries and must have meant a great deal less to Denon and his compeers some eighteen centuries later. The rediscoverer of Ramesses II was Champollion who also translated as Rhamesseion the ancient Egyptian appellation of the building that Diodorus describes and from which Belzoni had taken the colossal head of Ramesses II in 1816, the temple we know now generally by the Latinized version of Champollion's Greek designation. (52)

All the confident ascriptions in this passage from Denon are therefore bad guesses tricked out with half-baked pseudo-scholarship. The passage may nevertheless conceivably have contributed something to the specific physical setting for Shelley's sonnet, as Nigel Leask and others have suggested, that would be conformable with its Volneyan theme. (53) This setting, where "lone and level sands stretch far away," is obviously not the ancient building described by Diodorus; and it is vital to the poem, whose meaning requires a place where all other physical evidence of empire shall have vanished without a trace. Denon's "plaine" may possibly have suggested a suitably Volneyan alternative to Diodorus. Far more familliar to Shelley and thus more likely as a source, however, was a passage from Volney himself, once again, this time from his Voyage en Syrie et en Egypte, describing the Egyptian landscape:
 No country looks more monotonous: always a naked
 plain as far as one can see, always a flat uniform horizon
 . . . No country is less picturesque, less suitable for the
 brushes of painters and poets: there is nothing there of
 what makes for the charm and richness of their depictions. (54)

A note in this passage by Volney refers the reader to the plates of Norden's Voyage d'Egypte et de Nubie, which "'make this state of things apprehensible." (55)

It would obviously be a mistake to interpret Shelley's poem as a sort of miniature travelogue, much less as some kind of anachronistic attestation to the glory of Ramesses II: that monarch's current celebrity is not even a direct inheritance from ancient times, but a recent confection based upon the intelligence, self-sacrifice, persistence, and hard work expended by a host of Egyptologists during merely the past 175 years. Nor is the poem a "claim for the power of art to survive the ruins of empire," as has recently been suggested by Nigel Leask in his wide-ranging study of travel writing during the Romantic era. Leask's assertion that Shelley's Defense of Poetry celebrates "the transhistorical, Platonic power of art ... as at once the harbinger and guarantee of political liberty" is not only not supported by the text of the Defense, but is actually contradicted by it. (56)

Nowhere in any of his writings, indeed, does Shelley make such a claim for art, least of all in "Ozymandias" where it is clear that the survival of chunks of the colossal portrait statue of an ancient tyrant has been purely accidental. That fact, indeed, is part of the point of the whole poem. The chief principle or vision enunciated in the Defense and elsewhere in Shelley, moreover, is not "aesthetic" or "Platonic," but ethical and evolutionary. It is a vision concerned wholly with real life and its conduct in the world as it is. The chief elements of this vision were by no means uncommon or peculiar to Shelley alone, moreover, but were recognized by him and others as being shared with many of his contemporaries. Exemplified and enunciated certainly in "'Ozymandias" and Prometheus Unbound, they thus also provide the intellectual framework of other great Romantic works by artists ranging from Byron, Wordsworth and Scott, to Goethe and Manzoni (in Part II of Faust and in l Promessi Sposi, neither of which he could have read), or even Beethoven (whose Ninth Symphony he could not have heard).

If Shelley had lived to complete The Defense of Poetry, we might have been treated to an analysis of the kind of artist among his contemporaries whom he admired. His wonderful summarizing formulation in the Defense--"Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World"--is by no means neo-Platonic or even Delphic, as some befuddled commentators have attempted to imply, but simple common sense based on a sound knowledge of the history of ideas. It deliberately echoes, in fact, that old arch-conservative, Samuel Johnson, the patron saint of common sense. In chapter X of Rasselas, published over 60 years earlier, Johnson's porte-parole, the philosopher, Imlac, describes the poet as "the legislator of mankind ... presiding over the thoughts and manner of future generations."

In Shelley's Volneyan and evolutionary view of history, all empires are foredoomed to disappear and for a work of what we call art merely to have outlived one of them hardly signifies anything. If that work is merely a portrait of a tyrant, moreover, the value one places upon it--like the value one places on propaganda or Kitsch--may well be largely ironical, the irony being present or absent precisely to the degree that the tyranny it was originally supposed to memorialize is in fact remembered at all.

"Ozymandias" is thus a political poem, a fact that should be clear not only from the text itself, but from the kinds of things that "inspired" it: no physical experience except the reading of many other texts, which had little to do with physical experience themselves and nothing at all to do with neo-Platonic philosophy. These texts, in turn, were merely a small portion of the poet's wide reading over many years, which had given him a thorough knowledge, most importantly for this poem, of the multitudinous metaphors, living and dead, that were available to figure in contemporary political thinking. And above all, no doubt, what always echoed in his mind were the political sonnets of Wordsworth, published ten years earlier, and of Milton.

"Ozymandias" is not, in other words, the result of "inspiration" by a particular physical experience, nor of some special realization or revelation arising out of physical experience. To point out this truth is to run counter, of course, to a great many vulgar myths about art and artists. In old-fashioned Hollywood movies, for example, a sexual or quasi-sexual epiphany used to figure as the automatic explanation for virtually any creative act. (57) But "Ozymandias" is certainly not an erotic celebration. Neither is it a poem about "nature." Nor is it is in any way about "art." It has even less to tell us about nature, love, or art, indeed, than it does about ancient Egypt.

What it seeks to remind its readers, instead, is that no tyrannical power lasts forever, no matter how efficient its repressive apparatus or how deep its degree of self-deceit. And if in Shelley's day the means of tyranny available to governments were nugatory compared with the massed might that can be casually mustered by the powers-that-be in our own democratic age--an era when elected governments outdo any ancient monarchy in callousness and cruelty, in hypocrisy and mendacity, in globalized rapacity and greed--"Ozymandias" may well have more pith and relevance than ever before.


(1) Mandeville's Travels was recognized as an inventive compilation as early as the sixteenth century. That the same is probably true of Marco Polo's Description has been demonstrated by Frances Wood, who suggests that it was the result of a collaboration between Marco Polo and Rusticello of Pisa, a well-known composer of romances, who acted as ghost-writer and compiler rather than as mere amanuensis. See her Did Marco Polo go to China? (London: Secker and Warburg, 1995).

(2) "Ozymandias" (="[sup.C]User-[ma.sup.C]at-[re.sup.C]") is not a corruption of "Ramesses" (= "Ra-messu") as has been claimed by at least one scholarly critic. An appalling invention appears in Duncan Wu's Romanticism: an Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), 260, where we are assured that Ramesses' "tomb at Luxor was in the shape of a male sphinx," whatever that might be.

(3) In 1811, during one of his stays in Athens, Byron went so far as to obtain a firman allowing him to travel in Egypt, but he never made the trip.

(4) Harry James has suggested that another influence might have been William Richard Hamilton (1777-1859), whose Aegyptiaca--Remarks on Several Parts of Turkey, Part I: Aegyptiaca, or some Account of the Ancient and Modern State of Egypt, as obtained in the Years 1801, 1802; ... (London: T. Payne, Cadell and Davies, 1809)--had a large British readership. An early reviewer remarks that it "will be found an excellent supplement to the more elaborate and costly work of Denon," which Hamilton himself refers to and quotes (e.g., p. 142). About Diodorus, however, whom he accuses of credulity and outright invention, Hamilton was totally skeptical, with the result that he accepted Denon's identification of the Ramesseum as a "Memnonium." See Hamilton, 113, 134-137.

(5) Full citation: Richard Pococke, LL.D., FRS (1704-1765). A Description of the East and Some Other Countries. Volume the First: Observations on Egypt (London: Printed for the author by W. Bowyer, and sold by J. and P. Knapton, W. Innys, W. Meadows, G. Hawkins, S. Birt. T. Longman, C. Hitch, R. Dodsley, J. Nourse and J. Rivington, 1743); the second volume of this enormous work appeared in two parts in 1745. There were also editions in French (1752-1753, 1772-1773), German (1754-1755), and Dutch (1776-1786).

(6) The idea of the Description as a possible source was negatived by D. W. Thompson in "Ozymandias," Philological Quarterly XVI (1937): 60.

(7) For a brief straightforward account, see Nigel Leask, Curiosity and the Aesthetics of Travel Writing 1770-1840 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002), 102. The story is told at greater length by Guy Davenport in "Ozymandias," The New York Times (May 28, 1978): 15. The date 1817, given by Peter Clayton in The Rediscovery of Ancient Egypt: Artists and Travellers in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Portland House, 1982), 123, is right for the composition of the poem, but not for its publication. See also The Inspiration of Egypt: Its Influence on British Artists, Travellers and Designers, 1700-1900, ed. Patrick Conner (Brighton: Brighton Borough Council, 1983), 76-77.

(8) Johnstone Parr, "Shelley's 'Ozymandias,'" Keats-Shelley Journal VI (Winter 1987): 34, as quoted in Leask, 123.

(9) The Examiner (February 1, 1818): 73; republished in Horace Smith, Amarynthus, the Nympholet: A Pastoral Drama, in Three Acts. With Other Poems (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1821); Facsimile edition: New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1977; also available on the internet at several websites, including: <>.

(10) See Description, planches, Antiquites, III, pl. 20.

(11) Quarterly Review XVIII (1817-1818): 368.

(12) The error is repeated, for example, in all the websites (with many other errors) that deal with the poem. It also appears not only in Richard Holmes's standard Shelley: The Pursuit (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974), but also in such recent works as Christopher Woodward's entertaining collection of essays, In Ruins (London: Chatto and Windus, 2001), 204; Leask, 104.

(13) See E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, 1956, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Bollingen Series XXXV, number 5 (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1961), 385.

(14) For a chronology of the head's travels, see Deborah Manley and Peta Ree, Henry Salt: Artist, Traveller, Diplomat, Egyptologist (London: Libri, 2001), 87-99, 155.

(15) See Conner, ed., The Inspiration of Egypt, 77.

(16) Description, planches, Antiquites, II, pl. 30.

(17) See Christian Leblanc, "Diodore, le tombeau d'Osymandyas et la statuaire du Ramesseum," Melanges Gamal Eddin Mukhtar, II (Cairo: IFAO, 1985) [IF 630], 80.

(18) See Alastor, 11. 53, 107-128.

(19) Smith had received an excellent classical education and no doubt read his Diodorus, as Shelley did, in Greek.

(20) Parr (see above: note 8).

(21) See The Inspiration of Egypt, 77, 80.

(22) See The Inspiration of Egypt, 76-77, 80.

(23) From The Library of History, I, xlvii, as translated by the Egyptologist Sir E. T. A. Wallis Budge (1857-1934) in The Nile: Notes for Travellers in Egypt (London and Cairo: Thomas Cook and Son, 1905), 524-25.

(24) See Leblanc, 76-77, 80. One of the inscriptions reads: "The Horus-Re, [Bull] valiant-beloved-of-Maat, the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, rich in monuments in Thebes, Lord [of the Crowns]. Usermaatre Setepenre, son of Re. Ramses Meriamon, beloved of Amun-Re, King of Gods: may he be endowed with life!" The other reads: "Saith Amun-Re, King of Gods: 'O my son, issue of my body, my beloved, Lord of Victory, [Ramses] Meriamun! I give thee years by millions, jubilees by hundreds of thousands: all foreign countries are under thy feet.'"

(25) Leblanc, 80.

(26) The temple of Amenhotep III on the West Bank, for example, in front of which the two statues of Amenhotep that are now called the Colossi of Memnon was originally erected, had already largely disappeared in Diodorus' time, having been used as a quarry from the late New Kingdom onward. Very little, likewise, was left of Heliopolis, which had still been an important city when Herodotus visited it a mere four hundred years earlier.

(27) Leblanc, 82.

(28) See chapters I and XIX.

(29) Full title of the first edition: Voyage en Syrie et en Egypte, pendant les annees 1783, 1784, et 1785, avec deux Cartes Geographiques et deux Planches gravees, representantes les ruines du Temple du Soleil a, Baalbek, et celles de la Ville de Palmyre dans le Desert de Syrie (Paris: Volant et Desenne, 1787: Paris: Gauhnier, Mouton, 1959). See also J. B. Rothe, Auszug aus Volney's Reise nach Egypten (Dresden: Gerlach, 1799; Dresden: Beyer, 1810).

(30) Paris: Desenne, 1791.

(31) Brian Riggs in The New Oxford Companion to Literature in French, ed. Peter France (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995), 884. Cf The Concise Oxford Dictionary of French Literature, ed. Joyce M. H. Reid (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1976), 659: "a singular mixture of picturesque description of ancient ruins and philosophical disquisition on the origin and growth of social political, and religious institutions. [Volney] concludes in favor of the equality of all men before the law, the overthrow of despotism, and toleration and agnosticism in religious matters where truth is not verifiable."

(32) Ian Jack, English Literature, 1815-1832 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1965), 94.

(33) Ideologie, formalized belatedly in Elements de l'Ideologie (1801-1805) by Comte Antoine-Louis-Claude Destutt de Tracy (1754-1839), is based on the notion that all ideas originate in physical sensation and is in effect a French version of Associationism, first enunciated by David Hartley (1705-1757) in Observations on Man (1749). Ideologie thus likewise derives directly from Lockean psychology, especially as interpreted by the Encyclopedist Etienne Bonnot, abbe de Condillac (1714-1780) in his Essai sur l'origine des connaissances humaines (1746) and his Traite des sensations (1754). English adherents of Associationism included not only Coleridge. Wordsworth, and Shelley, but also Priestley, Erasmus Darwin, and Godwin. Apart from Volney, Destutt de Tracy and Stendhal, notable Ideologues included Antoine-Nicolas Caritat, marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794), author of Esquisse d'un tableau des progres de l'esprit humain (1794), Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis (1757-1808), author of Rapports du physique et du moral de l'homme (1802), and Stendhal's brilliant elder contemporary, the novelist, memoirist, and political thinker Benjamin Constant (1767-1830). The OED informs us that the English word ideology was specifically invented to translate Destutt de Tracy's ideologie in 1796 and that the currently prevalent use of the same word to signify any system of convictions or ideas dates from no earlier than 1909.

(34) London: J. Johnson, 1792.

(35) Troisieme edition, corrigee et augmentee du Cathechisme du Citoyren Francais, par le meme auteur (Paris: Chez A. J. Dugour et Durand, Libraires, Rue et Hotel Serpente, 1794[?]), 1-2: "Je vous salue, ruines solitaires, tombeaux saints, murs silencieux! c'est vous que j'invoque; c'est a vous que j'adresse ma priere! Oui! tandis que votre aspect repousse d'un secret effroi les regards du vulgaire, mon caeur trouve 'a vous contempler le charme des sentiments profonds et de hautes pensees. Combien d'utile lecons, de reflexions touchantes ou fortes n'offrez-vous pas e l'esprit qui vous sait consulter! C'est vous qui, lorsque la terre entiere asservie se taisait devant les tyrans, proclamiez deja les verites qu'ils detestetent, et qui, confondant la depouille des rois a celle du dernier esclave, attestiez le saint dogme d'EGALITE."

(36) They had been notably anticipated by Thomas Hope (1769-1831) whose Grand Tour lasted from 1787 to 1795 and who lived in Constantinople for a year. His novel Anastasius (1819) was remarkable enough to have been at first mistakenly attributed to Byron. See Philip Mansel, "The Grand Tour in the Ottoman Empire, 1699-1826" in Unfolding the Orient: Travellers in Egypt and the Near East. ed. Paul and Janet Starkey (Reading: Ithaca, 2001), 54-56.

(37) See Frankenstein, or The New Prometheus, chapter 13. The monster later reads Milton's Paradise Lost, a volume of Plutarch's Lives, and Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther.

(38) Quoted in Ian Jack, English Literature, 104.

(39) A brief biography is: Ibrahim Amin Ghali, Vivant Denon ou La conquete du bonheur (Cairo: IFAO, 1986); more recent is Philippe Sollers, Le Cavalier du Louvre (Paris: Plon. 1995). The influence of Denon in "Ozymandias" is also discussed in Eugene M. Waith, "Ozymandias: Shelley, Horace Smith and Denon," Keats-Shelley Journal XLIV (1995): 22-28; in Parr, 31-35; and in Leask, 117-23. Christopher Taylor suggests that Denon served both the Bourbon and the Revolutionary regimes as a spy and that the Russian, Venetian, and Austrian authorities were justified in declaring him persona non grata. Perhaps only a career in espionage would explain both the curious range of his accomplishments and the otherwise extraordinary favors extended to him under successive French governments.

(40) Jean-Claude Vatin, introduction, Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte, pendant les campagnes de General Bonaparte, by Vivant Denon (Cairo: IFAO, 1989 [reprint]), 12. First published over his initials, it has since always had a readership and has recently been republished (Paris: Gallimard, 1995) by Michel Delon, editor of the Marquis de Sade.

(41) In a woefully unresearched article, "Life Lines," RA The Royal Academy Magazine 48 (Autumn 1995): 59, James Putnam and Nick Tite describe the Egypt of 1798 as "this mysterious and forgotten land," then make it appear that Denon headed Napoleon's Commission. Along with Denon, Bonaparte also repatriated Claude-Louis Berthollet, Gaspard Monge, and five generals, leaving the embittered and unfortunate Kleber in command, with notice that he expected the rest of Commission to leave Egypt during the following November. See Kleber en Egypte 1798-1800, etude historique, presentation et notes par Henri Laurens, II (Correspondance et papiers personnels de Kleber) [Cairo: IFAO, 1988], 510-11.

(42) See Robert Sole, Les savants de Bonaparte (Paris: Seuil, 1998), 217; Gilles Neret, Erotica Universalis (Cologne: Benedikt Taschen, 1994), 374-89.

(43) Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte, pendant les campagnes de General Bonaparte (Paris: D. Didot l'aine, 1802: London: Samuel, 1802), two volumes, reprinted, with an introduction by Jean-Claude Vatin (Cairo: IFAO, 1989). Hereinafter Voyage. See Jean-Edouard Goby, "Les 40 editions, traductions et adaptations du Voyage en Basse et Haute Egypte de Vivant Denon," Cahiers d'histoire egyptienne IV, fascicules 5-6 (decembre 1952): 290-316; Martin R. Kalfatovic, Nile Notes of a Howadji: A Bibliography of Travelers' Tales from Egypt from the Earliest Time to 1918 (Metuchen, N.J. and London: Scarecrow Press, 1992), 73-74. Early translations of Denon include: Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt during the Campaigns of General Bonaparte, trans. Francis Blagdon (London: B. Crosby and Co., 1802). (Text only. The same translation was published again the following year by John Murray.) Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt during the Campaigns of General Bonaparte, trans. E. A. Kendal (London: Hurst, 1803). Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt, in Company with Several Divisions of the French Army, during the Campaigns of General Bonaparte in that Country: and Published under his Immediate Patronage, trans. Arthur Aiken (New York: Printed by Heard and Forman for S. Campbell, 1803). Reise durch Ober- und Niederagypten wahrend der Feldzuge des Generals Bonaparte. Aus dem Franzosischen von Tiedemann (Berlin and Leipzig: Voss, 1803).

(44) See Prosper Jollois and Baron Rend Edouard Devilliers [du Terrage], Description de l'Egypte, no. 10, chapitre IX, sections II-III, first edition, Antiquites I (1809), 77-160: they managed to identify the monument as the Tomb of Oxymandias. Its misidentification as a "Memnonium" was first made by the Italian abbe, P. L. Pincia, whose description of a visit to the Ramesseum on 1 January 1721 is the earliest recorded by a European. See Pere Claude Sicard, Lettres et relations inedites, presentation de Maurice Martin, (Euvres (Cairo: IFAO, 1982), 84, 138, 143. Pococke and Norden both remained faithful to Diodorus and consequently identified the building correctly. See Friderik Ludwig Norden [Frederic-Louis/Frederick Lewis] (1708-1742) [toured Egypt June 1737-38, Upper Egypt from 17 November 1837 to 21 February 1838], Voyage d'Egypte et de Nubie, par Mr. Frederic Louis Norden, Capitaine des Vaisseaux du Roi. Ouvrage enrichi de cartes et des figures dessines sur les lieux, par l"Auteur meme [traduit du Danois en Francais par des Roches de Parthenais.] (Copenhagen: Imprimerie de la Maison Royale des Orphelins, 1752-1755), I, 173. Savary, who cites Pococke, Sicard, Niebuhr, and d'Anville, makes the same error as Denon, though he correctly identifies the colossal head he saw in the Ramesseum with the statue described by Diodorus. See Lettres sur l'Egypte, ou l'on offre le parallele des maeurs anciennes et modernes de ses inhabitants, ou l'on decrit l'etat, le commerce, l'agriculture, le gouvernment, l'ancienne Religion du pays, & la descente de S. Louis a Damiette, tiree de Joinville & les Auteurs Arabes, avec des Cartes Georaphiques, deuxieme edition revue & corrigee (Paris: Onfroi, libraire, Quai des Augustins, 1786), I, 3, II, 134-36.

(45) No textual inscription in ancient Egyptian could presumably have been correctly read by anyone; in fact, from about the fourth or fifth century A.D. until after 1822, when Champollion published the embryonic beginnings of the scheme he was evolving out of the work of Sacy, Akerblad, and Young. Even well after 1822 the major source for knowledge of the pharaohs therefore remained a seventh-century A.D. edition of a fourth-century A.D. version of a third-century A.D. summary of the same account that Diodorus had chiefly used, which was written in Greek from Egyptian sources by an Egyptian scholar--Manetho--at the beginning of the second century B.C., a thousand years after Ramesses' accession.

(46) Denon, Voyage, I, 119. My translation.

(47) Denon's captions for his depiction of the statues (plate 44) note the inscriptions and refer to the statues "qu'on est convenu d'appeler les statues de Memnon."

(48) There is some confusion in Leask, 122-23, who cites an 1803 English translation of this same passage, in which he draws the reader's attention to the phrase "nothing of it remains" as a parallel to Shelley's "Nothing beside remains," and who apparently presumes that Denon's wild surmises have some Egyptological validity.

(49) They are the means by which Richard Hamilton and Denon's erstwhile colleagues in the Commission, who knew no ancient Egyptian, were in fact enabled to identify the colossi quite correctly.

(50) Denon, Voyage, I, 120. My translation. Denon was appointed Director of the Central Museum of Arts--the Louvre and its adjuncts--the same year his Voyage was published and in 1804 was made Director General of Museums. In this grandiose capacity he visited the site of almost every major Napoleonic victory, charged with the heady task of picking out works of art for removal to the Louvre as war booty. The operative principle, cal-fled out with a vengeance, was one that the Nazi and Soviet armies would revive during World War II. Denon himself had enunciated it a decade earlier, during the Revolutionary epoch, in a single deliciously ironic sentence that summarizes all his skills and sensibilities. "The French Republic," he declared, "thanks to its strength, the superiority of its intellectuals and its artists, is the only country in the world able to offer a safe refuge to these masterpieces." Quoted in Ghali, 197: "La Republique Francaise, par sa force, la superiorite de ses lumibres et de ses artistes, est le seul pays au monde qui puisse donner une asile inviolable a ces chefs-oeuvre."

The major collections of Spain and Italy, including the Vatican, had already been stripped. Now Austria, Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony and the petty kingdoms and principalities of Germany were systematically pillaged. The great collection of Dresden was saved from Denon's grasp only by Talleyrand, who received a bribe of a million francs for his intervention. After the fall of the Empire Denon was compelled by the Allied victors to return over 2000 paintings, 600 sculptures, and 3000 miscellaneous objets d'art to their owners. Nothing, by the way, was sent back to Egypt. Denon himself was a classic survivor and subsequently enjoyed a decade of comfortable and happy old age, dying in 1825 at the age of 78. The famous multi-volumed Description de l'Egypte, to which Denon had contributed, would not be completed until 1828/9, three years afterward, six years after the death of Shelley (1822).

(51) Aelius Gallus is not to be confused with the first Roman governor of Egypt, Gaius Comelius Gallus, celebrated by Vergil in Eclogues VI and X.

(52) Patterned after Mausoleion. See Champollion's letter of 18 June 1829 to Champollion-Figeac in his Lettres et journaux ecrits pendant le voyage d'Egypte, recueillis et annotes par H. Hartleben (Paris: Christian Bourgeois editeur, 1986), 308.

(53) See Leask, 122-23.

(54) Voyage en Syrie et en Egypte, I, 224: "Nul pays d'un aspect plus monotone; toujours une plaine nue a perte de vue; toujours un horizon plat et uniforme ... Nul pays n'est moins pittoresque, moins propre aux pinceaux des peintres et poetes: on n'y trouve rien de ce qui fait le charme et la richesse de leurs tableaux."

(55) Norden, Voyage d'Egypte et de Nubie (for full reference see note 44). There were further French editions in 1795-1798 and 1800: an English edition in 1757; 164 plates were published separately in London in 1792; a German edition, 1799.

(56) Leask, 111. Note, for example, what Shelley says in the Deft, use about the necessary decay of language from being "vitally metaphoric" to being "dead to all the nobler purposes of human intercourse." Or his identification of poets with "the authors of language and music, of the dance and architecture, and statuary ... institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society; and the inventors of the arts of life, and the teachers [of religion]."

(57) Typically, in these films, the best-known works of Beethoven, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Michelangelo, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gershwin, Cole Porter, or Shakespeare are all to be attributed equally to similar physical "inspirations," a technicolor sunset, the death of Morn, or the hero's sudden consciousness that he is in love with whomever. Tasteful exceptions among films about artists sometimes occur, such as Shakespeare in Love and Amadeus, both based on the work of intelligent playwrights; and the early work of Ken Russell, including his black and white biographical explorations of Delius, Wagner, and George Eliot. His self-indulgent treatments of Tchaikovsky and Mahler, however, lapse into the sensational, as do two films specifically about Byron's and Shelley's famous summer together in 1816, Gothic and Haunted Summer.
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Author:Rodenbeck, John
Publication:Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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