The River God – Stevie Smith + Analysis

The River God – Stevie Smith

I may be smelly, and I may be old,
Rough in my pebbles, reedy in my pools,
But where my fish float by I bless their swimming
And I like the people to bathe in me, especially women.
But I can drown the fools
Who bathe too close to the weir, contrary to rules.
And they take their time drowning
As I throw them up now and then in a spirit of clowning.
Hi yih, yippity-yap, merrily I flow,
O I may be an old foul river but I have plenty of go.
Once there was a lady who was too bold
She bathed in me by the tall black cliff where the water runs cold,
So I brought her down here
To be my beautiful dear.
Oh will she stay with me will she stay
This beautiful lady, or will she go away?
She lies in my beautiful deep river bed with many a weed
To hold her, and many a waving reed.
Oh who would guess what a beautiful white face lies there
Waiting for me to smooth and wash away the fear
She looks at me with. Hi yih, do not let her
Go. There is no one on earth who does not forget her
Now. They say I am a foolish old smelly river
But they do not know of my wide original bed
Where the lady waits, with her golden sleepy head.
If she wishes to go I will not forgive her.


Once again we come to a second poem by Stevie Smith. I can remember when doing my GCSEs that we looked at a Stevie Smith poem back then and I was left with that sinking feeling you get in the pit of the stomach after reading it for the first time.

Let’s see if this one has the same effect.

It begins in the first person, using the term “I” instead of third person which would be about a person, like her poem in the conflict section. But this “I” is reflecting, saying “I may be smelly, and I may be old,” which immediately should have an effect on the reader, making them feel empathy towards the character speaking. If anything it is meant to be said in such a way as to get that effect from the reader.

So this person, or thing, for the title says “river God,” feels as if it is smelly and old, but then we see a further description in that it is seeing itself as “rough in my pebbles, reedy in my pools,” which is slightly odd as a way of describing itself, unless we keep to the idea of a god being described, but what form does that ‘god’ take? If it is in a river, is it the biggest fish or predator in there? The answer is given in the next line where it says “but where my fish float by I bless their swimming,” so this is no fish, but rather, something that ‘allows’ the swimming fish to take their place amongst the other life in the river.

This god then adds “I like the people to bathe in me, especially women.” Once again, who or what is the river god? What form of creature or being is it that likes to have people bathe in it, unless it is the river itself speaking. At least in that way, we can see the personification at work here as it adds “but I can drown the fools who bathe too close to the weir, contrary to rules.” In this way, the poet uses personification to bring the river to life. We speak of a river as a living thing normally. We might say to children to be very careful for a river is a dangerous thing indeed. And we would be right to do so, but we forget at our peril what we are doing with language at that point as we bring life into the river as though it is alive [which it indeed is].

There is a feeling of disdain in this poem from the river [god] to the people as well. Just as much as it rejoices in the swimmers who know what they are doing, it makes snide comments about the ones who do not follow the rules as they “take their time drowning” and dying within its grasp. This is a reference to the power that water has. A river has currents that can be tricky to swimmers if they do not know what they are doing. Indeed, where I live, there has been three deaths in the river [Ouse] in this last twelve months because drunken revellers have ended up in the water and been caught out by the strength of the water beneath them. One such body was not found for weeks.

Stevie Smith then has the river [god] mention that it throws them up “now and then in a spirit of clowning.” It is a strange comment or line to make even from this god of wrath, but one that shows the fickle nature of the creation it exists within. The words “Hi yih, yippity-yap, merrily I flow, O I may be an old foul river but I have plenty of go” show the reader that this is something that does not care, does not have feelings or compassion, but rather, is something that exists and should be taken great care with. It shows the danger and it shows the power that a river has at its disposal. Our concept of God [with a capital G] may be one thing or another. Our concept of a god [with small g] may be something else. But what is true is that this personified being is a mighty one indeed.

This is reflected in the next line where the river [god] tells the story of one of its victims. We are told that “once there was a lady who was too bold.” Immediately, we are led into thinking that this is another victim that is being described here, as “she bathed in me by the tall black cliff where the water runs cold,” itself a description meant to make the reader think certain things. Coldness is a symbol, or even metaphor, for death or dying and one is immediately aware here that Smith’s other poem, in the conflict section, is also about the onset of death. Is there a parallel here? Is she pre-occupied with death as a writer? Or if not death, with suffering and pain?

The river itself gives us the answer to that question as it adds “so I brought her down here to be my beautiful dear.” It is as if the river god needs to have its victims from time to time, needs to have a partner of some description, as if it yearns for the next person to not take enough care so it can gobble down its prey. It is personified therefore, as a predator in the wild, just like any other wild animal. The river god asks “oh will she stay with me will she stay, ,this beautiful lady, or will she go away? It is as if the question is being asked of someone or something else. It is like she [the river god-dess now?]  needs to have permission to take this victim down to her depths? Is this an all powerful God then? I think not because an all powerful, omnipotent God does not need permission to do things.

And as this dramatic monologue continues we then begin to see how much the river god wants to keep her prey. We see the words “she lies in my beautiful deep river bed with many a weed,” deep and safe [in a morose sense] so as to never be found. This is not a god then who is loving in the normal sense but one who loves the ones that end up at the bottom on the river bed with “many a waving reed” to hold them in place.

The river god tells us from her depths that she has capabilities of reassuring and calming the victim/lover that exists within her depths. She says “Oh who would guess what a beautiful white face lies there waiting for me to smooth and wash away the fear she looks at me with.” She has the ability therefore with time and decay, to wipe away any fear, to make good on her promises and to keep the person there for all eternity. In that way, she is like the God she suggests she is. Once again we see the sing song style made up words of “Hi yih,” followed by “do not let her go.” She is imploring us to look after the ones we love, to not let them get into danger, to make sure that they are safe, otherwise, she will take them given half the chance. She is after all, a jealous God and one that will take what she can.

So, we humans who exist above her depths need to be aware of each other, to love each other and care for each other; to not make it so that “there is no one on earth who does not forget” to do this and then lose someone close. The river god describes herself as a “foolish old smelly river” and one who has a “wide original bed where the lady waits, with her golden sleepy head.” It is as if an animal exists down there inside the water, an animal that is the river itself, something that wants its prey, a hunter if you like, who seeks out and keeps those wayward strays that come from above into the murky waters.

And she is a jealous God too because in the last line we hear her say “if she wishes to go I will not forgive her.” This is a reference to the woman in the previous lines but it shows an entity that will not be forgiving should the lady in question be rescued by those who want to save her, in the god’s view, a woman who “wishes to go” back to dry land.

This therefore, is a very classy poem. It uses personification to bring the river god to life. It tells us how effective she is at securing and keeping her prey, her victims who have drowned and it shows a range of emotions as if a river could have them; calmness, gentility, rage, jealousy to name but a few. If I had the chance to write about this in the exam, I would choose this one because it is, I think, easier than some of the others to get into and unpack!

My Last Duchess – Robert Browning + Analysis

‘My Last Duchess’

Robert Browning


That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek; perhaps
Fra Pandolf chanced to say, “Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat.” Such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?— too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—which I have not—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse—
E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretense
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!


Have you ever told a story to someone about something else someone has done? If so, then you have done something similar to the person in this poem. Have a second look and see. It begins with the Duke talking to a man who is with him in his home and he is saying that the picture on the wall is the depiction of the last Duchess, or woman he was married to. He expresses an opinion, as well as his love for her, in the words “looking as if she were alive.”

It is as if he can remember her because of that painting and recall to his memory her features, as if she was alive. Clearly, this is a man in love with this woman. His love for her knows no end. He even calls the piece of art “a Wonder” because of the unerring accuracy of the painting. He is, in a word, besotted but grieving.

He remarks how the painter was at work on this for some time and his completion is wonderful to behold. When he adds “there she stands” he is using the same words he would if she was actually standing in front of him in person. He asks the visitor if he would mind sitting and looking at her, at the “depth and passion” contained within the painting.

So far, this is a poem that shows extreme love and passion from one man to his wife, now dead. But is there something else? Those who have read enough of this blog will know how much I mention that there is conflict usually in any piece of Literature, so what are we expecting here I wonder? When will it turn nasty? As we read on, we will see this happen in front of our very eyes. This special visitor has been given special consideration for he has a “curtain ….. drawn for [him]” so he can view the artwork in privacy. And as he does so he is asked a question: “how [did] such a glance” appear in the face of the woman on the canvas? She has a look on her face that is making the two people viewing wonder just what was in her mind as she was being painted by the artist. This should make the reader sit up and think!

We then see that there is a “spot of joy” on the cheek of the Duchess but it was not there because of the Duke. The visitor says that consideration has been given to the Duchess when modelling for the piece because “paint must never hope to reproduce the faint half-flush that dies along her throat.” There is an admiration for the Duchess in the heart of both men and a passion shared by them for this deceased woman in the painting. It is in one way, such a wonderful poem up until this point. It depicts a picture in the mind that one can almost see as if it was a scene from a film.

But then, we see that the Duchess “had a heart” when she was alive that was “too soon made glad,” which should make the reader stop and think. What does that mean, “a heart too soon made glad?” In one sense it could mean that she was too happy all of the time, which could become annoying to people. Yet again, it could mean something else. It could suggest to the reader that the Duke was not too keen on this aspect of her lifestyle. She was “too easily impressed” and favoured whatever she looked at. Was this a person who saw the good in others more than most of us do? Was her husband able to cope with this?

This is developed further into the poem as we see a woman who would ride a “white mule” and everyone would be grateful of her presence in their lives. She was the epitome of the perfect wife from the sounds of it, but this possibly annoyed the Duke, who could not see why she would be like that. Here comes the conflict I hear you thinking.

The Duke says that his late wife “ranked [his] gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name with anybody’s gift.” In other words, she put him on a level with everyone else, which for a Duke, would be a difficult thing to stomach. It is like the Duke is saying that because of the way his wife was, her end came as a shock, which then makes the reader, the 21st Century reader, think in terms of conspiracy, whereby the Duchess was killed by persons unknown and for whatever reason.

With this being the case we then have to ask who would kill her and for what reason. If we read on, we see words that point towards a person of interest. The Duke says to the visitor “even had you skill in speech—which I have not—to make your will quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this or that in you disgusts me; here you miss, or there exceed the mark.” From these words we can deduce that the Duke is not too good with words abd that the Duchess, when alive, “let herself be lessoned,” or tutored so as to be able to “plainly set her wits” to anything she wanted or any person. The Duke on the other hand, is more reserved, more noble and royal, a typical symbol of everything controlled. Therefore, we as readers ask is their marriage a good match?

The chances are that it was an arranged marriage. Indeed, some readers have taken this Duke to be advancing in years whilst his dead wife remains in the painting as a young or younger woman. If this is the case and what Browning imagined then we see something else in there in the middle of this poem; the mind of an elderly Duke remembering someone who may have died some time beforehand and as he reminisces, he lets us know more about this wife he was married to. He is the sort of person who chooses “never to stoop” or bow to any kind of pressure. His lifestyle is strict and disciplined. Hers was not when she was alive. But at some point in their relationship, things changed. We read that “all smiles stopped together. “ This is saying that sadness entered where joy and fondness ended. Does this mean that their relationship turned sour? The answer to that is up to you.

And so, the Duke, maybe advancing in years, now looks at the painting and says “there she stands as if alive” before asking his visitor “will’t please you rise? We’ll meet the company below, then.” He is asking the visitor to join him in another room where the rest of a gathering are meeting, so this is not a single pairing seeing this painting but two men looking at the portrait of the Duchess before gathering together for a party, perhaps even, to remember her. As the two men descend towards their meal and drink, there is a mention of a “dowry,” which is something that used to happen in previous times [and indeed, still happens in some cultures around the world]. A man would marry, have a daughter and then as she met someone [or if it was an organized marriage] he would be required to pay the family of the groom a sum of money for the right to marry the young lady. That is a dowry!

Why is a dowry being mentioned here? It seems rather odd to me. It seems as if there has been something happening before this, that he expected to see the dowry but now, because of her death, there is a question about keeping the money. It is all conjecture from the Duke and we are left to wonder at the truth about the death of the last Duchess. As the two men descend towards the party the Duke tells the visitor to “notice Neptune, who is set in a stone carving and is “taming a sea-horse” which could also be symbolic of him having to tame his wife in the past, a fact he wants to keep quiet.

The reader at the end of this poem is left asking certain questions; what happened to the Duchess? Was she killed? If so then who by? Why is the Duke saying what he is? Is this a scene showing guilt? Is he responsible for her demise? Where in all of this, is the truth? And more importantly, is this meant as a poem to criticize a certain royal at the time it was written by Browning? If so, then we need to Google the man and find who he may have been writing about. It is like me now writing a poem about Diana, Princess of Wales and writing it in a similar fashion. I would then publish and be making a comment for people to discuss. This is why this is such a good, deep poem.

NB. When I taught this poem to Year 10 students last, we were required to let them act out the death scene, showing how they thought she had died. If you get the chance, ask your teacher if you can do the same thing. It will be most illuminating indeed on your reading of the poem.


In what ways are the effects of fear presented in at least two poems about the First World War?

In what ways are the effects of fear presented in at least two poems about the First World War?

This is a title taken from the AQA teacher booklet, so is a title your teacher can give you as a warm up for the exam. I would certainly give it to my students, but the question is how do we answer it? What do we put in there to answer such a question as this?

Well, I believe the answer lies in the question. Imagine that you choose Futility, by Wilfred Owen and The Falling Leaves by M P Cole. How would you approach it? Would you write about the first poem in full and then the second one? That would be a good idea and if I was marking the exam paper, may get a C or possibly a B, but not much higher due to the complexity of the essay itself and how you have not approached the essay writing task fully.

You see, although the title does not actually say compare and contrast it wants you to do just that. Your mission, should you choose to accept [as the saying goes] is to write a structured and well written analysis of both poems. So, I ask again, how would you do it? There are probably several ways; take one idea that applies to both and one that are different and write about them both together. That would gain a decent mark and grade, if written correctly.

I believe I have a method for you that will destroy any A* markers set for you. It is one that I was taught before I did my GCSEs, way back when Noah was a lad, but still applies to this day. It is simple, effective and easy to follow. If you want, you can call it the 5 Point Plan. It goes something like this:

Point 1
Point 2
Point 3

At the side of each one, add some ideas. Point 1 could be the difference between the two regarding the fear aspect. Point 2 might be the ways both poems are similar in showing fear etc. Point 3 might then be whether or not each one is successful, especially regarding the effect of fear on the reader. Then the conclusion would be which, in your opinion, is the better of the two [again, stick to the title here – see last comments in this piece regarding derailing].

When all that is done, write it and complete it. It will have been easier to write because of the planning and is easier than just waffling on from one idea into the next. With that in mind, here are a few notes on each section for you.


In this very short, five lines of writing, stick to the question, introducing the two poems and their poet’s names, in full. Just say what they are about in brief and keep to present tense all the way through……Owen writes……not Owen wrote! And never ever put “I” or “my” in there. There is no need whatsoever to make it personal. Your introduction is what it says, a way of introducing the aims of the essay without actually stating them. Example below:

The poetry of Wilfred Owen and Margaret Cole at the time of the First World War share some similarities because of their styles of writing and the fact that the themes contained within are anti-war by today’s standards. ‘Futility’ and ‘The Falling Leaves’ show a sense of fear throughout and the effects that fear then has on the soldiers who fought, as well as the reader.

That is all you need really. You have mentioned the poet’s name in each case and the poems being covered without writing that horrible “today I am going to write about….” style of introduction, which tends to make the teacher/marker want to hurl to be honest. It is such an immature form of writing but the one above is so much clearer and better.

Point 1

Here you could write about the difference between the two regarding the fear aspect. Your writing has to be in present tense throughout and those horrible PEE chains need to be bang on from now on. Your planning will aid you here. The more annotation on your poem, the better, before you write on.

Point 2

Here the idea would be to write about the ways both poems are similar in showing fear. Again, PEE chains throughout [see other blog item on this] and in equal amount of detail as Point 1.

Point 3

This third point is where you write about whether or not each one is successful, especially regarding the effect of fear on the reader. Once again, PEE chains throughout this section. You may only have an hour for the whole thing, so 2 PEE chains in each section [P1, P2 and P3] would be enough, giving you 6 bits of evidence used and commented on, or explained in detail, by you.


Finally, there is a conclusion to do, without PEE chains, making comment from you as to which, in your opinion, is the better of the two [again, stick to the title here]. In this section do not write with “I think that…..” because once again, its immaturity will let you down. It is your opinion we want to see, so do it like this:

… it can be said therefore that Owen’s poem is the most effective because of the very nature of the language he uses, which is first hand after being in the trenches. Cole did not share in the horror of the Somme, so her poem is not as effective as that of Owen.

Now if you can do this, like this, and well, then you are in for an A* or an A, providing you can keep to the task in hand. The question is whether you will derail or not.

You are possibly thinking what is he saying now. Well, it is very easy to lose sight of the exam task/title. It asks you to consider certain things. If you do, then do not worry. But it is easy to waffle on, to have a brainwave of an idea on the spot, add it in and then find you are moving away from the exam title. I usually use the analogy of the train journey to explain this. Imagine you are going from one place to the next on a train. You get on at Point A and you expect to get off at Point B, but if there is a problem somewhere in the middle and the tracks have to be changed, you end up at Point C and are lost.

Writing an essay can be rather like this. Be very careful. Think!

Have a go now at planning and writing an answer to this task title at the top. You choose your poems to write about. Then by all means, post it on the Facebook page for this site.


Write An Account From Your Own Life That Teaches Something To Others

Okay, this is a made up title so please do not go looking anywhere else for this in the AQA or indeed, any board data.

The idea for this post came about from reading one of those stories we see on Facebook every now and then. You know the sort, I am sure.

But, imagine being asked in an exam, to write something that is a story, recounting something from your past, something that helps another person in their life. It would be writing to inform and describe. The title may be different, but the style of writing will be the same. The idea will be to get the story down in such a way that you tell the story, but also, paint a picture in the mind of the reader; if you like, giving a moral to the story somewhere near the end.  The following story does this so well. Have a read and see what effect it has on you at the end.

Then try to write on of your own, from your life, to have a similar effect on the reader. When done, send it to here or to the Facebook page for this site where we can all share in your published work.


When I was a young boy, my father had one of the first telephones in our neighbourhood. I remember the polished, old case fastened to the wall. The shiny receiver hung on the side of the box. I was too little to reach the telephone, but used to listen with fascination when my mother talked to it.

Then I discovered that somewhere inside the wonderful device lived an amazing person. Her name was “Information Please” and there was nothing she did not know. Information Please could supply anyone’s number and the correct time.

My personal experience with the genie-in-a-bottle came one day while my mother was visiting a neighbour. Amusing myself at the tool bench in the basement, I whacked my finger with a hammer, the pain was terrible, but there seemed no point in crying because there was no one home to give sympathy.

I walked around the house sucking my throbbing finger, finally arriving at the stairway. The telephone! Quickly, I ran for the footstool in the parlor and dragged it to the landing. Climbing up, I unhooked the receiver in the parlor and held it to my ear. “Information, please” I said into the mouthpiece just above my head. A click or two and a small clear voice spoke into my ear. “Information.”

“I hurt my finger..” I wailed into the phone, the tears came readily enough now that I had an audience.
“Isn’t your mother home?” came the question.
“Nobody’s home but me,” I blubbered.
“Are you bleeding?” the voice asked.
I replied. “I hit my finger with the hammer and it hurts.”
“Can you open the icebox?” she asked.
I said I could.
“Then chip off a little bit of ice and hold it to your finger,” said the voice.

After that, I called “Information Please” for everything. I asked her for help with my geography, and she told me where Philadelphia was. She helped me with my mathematics. She told me my pet possum that I had caught in the park just the day before, would eat fruit and nuts.

Then, there was the time Petey, our pet canary, died. I called, “Information Please,” and told her the sad story. She listened, and then said things grown-ups say to soothe a child. But I was not consoled. I asked her, “Why is it that birds should sing so beautifully and bring joy to all the families, only to end up as a heap of feathers on the bottom of a cage?” She must have sensed my deep concern, for she said quietly, ” Wayne , always remember that there are other worlds to sing in.” Somehow I felt better.

Another day I was on the telephone, “Information Please.” “Information,” said in the now familiar voice. “How do I spell fix?”, I asked. All this took place in a small town in the Blue Mountains. When I was nine years old, we moved across to Perth. I missed my friend very much. “Information Please” belonged in that old wooden box back home and I somehow never thought of trying the shiny new phone that sat on the table in the hall.

As I grew into my teens, the memories of those childhood conversations never really left me. Often, in moments of doubt and perplexity I would recall the serene sense of security I had then. I appreciated now how patient, understanding, and kind she was to have spent her time on a little boy.

A few years later, on my way to college, my plane touched down in Sydney, New South Wales. I had about a half-hour or so between planes. I spent 15 minutes or so on the phone with my sister, who lived there now. Then without thinking what I was doing, I dialled my home town operator and said, “Information Please.” Miraculously, I heard the small, clear voice I knew so well. “Information.”

I hadn’t planned this, but I heard myself saying, “Could you please tell me how to spell fix?” There was a long pause. Then came the soft spoken answer, “I guess your finger must have healed by now.” I laughed, “So it’s really you,” I said. “I wonder if you have any idea how much you meant to me during that time?” I wonder,” she said, “if you know how much your calls meant to me. I never had any children and I used to look forward to your calls.” I told her how often I had thought of her over the years and I asked if I could call her again when I came back to visit my sister. “Please do”, she said. “Just ask for Sally.”

Three months later I was back in the Blue Mountains. A different voice answered, “Information.” I asked for Sally.
“Are you a friend?” she said. “Yes, a very old friend,” I answered.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” she said, “Sally had been working part time the last few years because she was sick. She died five weeks ago.”
Before I could hang up, she said, “Wait a minute, did you say your name was Wayne ?” “Yes.” I answered. “Well, Sally left a message for you. She wrote it down in case you called. Let me read it to you.” The note said,”Tell him there are other worlds to sing in. He’ll know what I mean.” I thanked her and hung up. I knew what Sally meant.

The moral of this story is to never underestimate the impression you make on others and those whose life you have touched today.

Ozymandias – P B Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley was born on 4th August, 1792 and died 8th July 1822 and lived through some momentous times. He is famous now as one of England’s most celebrated poets, but he like so many [Van Gogh for example] knew nothing of fame during his life. After his death, people began to talk about his poetry, eventually leading to his rise in fame and popularity. Nowadays, his works are considered highly in the English canon of literature.

He was a lyric poet and close friends with Lord Byron and Mary Shelley, the author of the novel, Frankenstein. This poem, called ‘Ozymandias’ is one that at first glance, for the young mind, can be somewhat confusing, so if you have just read this for the first time and are thinking using acronyms like WTF, then you are in the majority; mostly everyone reacts like that the first time, to this poem.

But then they read on and delve deeper and find that it can be understood in its context. Here is a man playing with language, yet another of those wonderful poets who brighten up our days with their words. Taken from the perspective of one person speaking, the reader immediately sees that this person meets “a traveller from an antique land,” making them think of a land far away maybe, that is as ancient as the sand, possibly a north African country, like Egypt, or southern Mediterranean, like Malta. Clearly this is a meeting between one person and a man. If we assume Shelley is meaning it to be autobiographical, then it is a meeting between him and a travelling man he is recounting.

This man then tells a riddle, of sorts. He says “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desert.” If this is meant as the meander into a story, then one ultimately asks what kind of story will it be. People from away from the UK can tell some very colourful stories from their differing cultures, so the man hearing the story is expecting something grandiose, maybe on a scale with the storytellers of old. As the man continues we find that in the story, “near them on the sand, half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies.”

What do you think that means?

The answer is in the word “visage” for when we look upon someone and their face is downcast, or happy, or joyous, we see a visage that reflects that. In this instance it is a “shattered visage” perhaps showing that tiredness and decay has set in. The visage in question has a “frown and wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command.” It is as if the coldness of the man is being shown in his sneer and his gaze.

But then in the next few words we see that this shattered face is none other than that of a statue, for we see the words “tell that its sculptor” which paints more of the picture in for us. It is as if Shelley has seen a “bust” or a face carved in stone somewhere and he has personified it into life in this poem. The face is one that has “passions” grained into it and just as the statue or face has these lines, it is the sculptor that has put them there; the master at work on the artwork, carving out the lines he creates. This then, is a poem that is an homage to those wonderful people who have made things with their hands and used their skills over the years to create the beautiful things we see in the museums nowadays. To Shelley, this work of art is sheer beauty. This entrenched face, full of the scars of life, is one that has lived and commanded respect.

The sculptor has “stamp’d on these lifeless things” and made them into something with added beauty. To Shelley, this man should be praised even though there is the reference to “the hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.” These are negative words indeed and appear as a critique of the sculptor, or more perhaps, a critical and social comment against the people of the time. Indeed, on the bottom of the piece of art work, we are told that “these words appear: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” This is a reference to the ancient Egyptian ruler, or Pharaoh, Rameses II and is meant to reflect his power and glory that he insisted he get from his subjects. Any research into him will show you just what life was like for the ordinary person at that time; tough.

The Egyptians were at one time, the powerhouse of the world and most of you know the story of Moses and the Israelites and their freedom from bondage. But I wonder, just how many of you know about this Egyptian ruler? Go on, Google the name and do some background reading. It can and will be used in your exam answers, or Controlled Assessments [for this year only]. Added detail like that in an exam answer will get you the A* you seek. So this poem is about a man, possibly Shelley, seeing the statue or bust of the ancient Egyptian ruler, Rameses II and his reaction to it [Google the title of the poem and see what I mean on Wikipedia – not always accurate but in this case yes].

You have to be very careful here however, because something is happening in this poem that you more than likely will not be told about by your teacher. Let me explain with an example. Go with me on this; let us say you like films. Let us say you are a fan of the actor George Clooney. Assuming you are female and like him, as an actor and a man, whether it be in one way or another, when you see an image of him, you would react in an odd manner, in a way that would be considered not normal for you. You would be over excited.

When I went to the Tate Modern a few years ago now, in London, to see the Pablo Picasso exhibition, I did so wanting to see that but also because there was a painting there I wanted to see, among others, a painting called Beatta Beattrix, by one of the Pre-Raphaelite painters. I had studied it in depth and when I got there, I looked round the Picasso and then went to the Pre-Raph exhibit on my own, for a private rendezvous with the painting that had captivated me all year when studying it.

I looked at it, at her, for over an hour. I checked her out from every angle imaginable. I now know every single centimetre of that canvas and I am in love with it. Seeing her two inches from the canvas, close up and personal, made my knees go weak. It was one of the most breathtaking things I have ever done [and sounds very odd when typed here] but it had a lasting effect on me. If that effect would have caused me to write a poem, then I wonder what I would have written. I too, like Shelley, may have penned something that today would be considered a classic poem to be studied. Clearly, I will have to die for my poetry to be famous!

But the same thing is happening here in this poem and we are told that “nothing beside remains: round the decay of that colossal wreck.” The art work is in tatters, looking rather worn out and grim; it is “boundless and bare” and suffering with the time and age it has stood there. It is, because of age and decay, a poor reflection of its former glory. As the “lone and level sands stretch far away” we are led to see here an image of decay, of ageing, of death and misery in something that once would have been majestic and wonderful to behold.

It is then, a poem that shares the idea that nothing is permanent. Even rulers and their glory fade with time and age as the years pass into each other. There is a sense of impermanence throughout this poem, suggesting that what Shelley is trying to say is that nothing lasts, so make the best of what life brings you. After all, it only lasts a short span of time.