Wall Street has “headline risk”—the possibility that bad news will result in swift stock market corrections. Journalism has headline poetry. The ingenuity displayed in a headline limited to very few characters creates memorable lines that engrave themselves in the mind like prose haiku. The headline of a piece may be decisive in establishing the poem’s main meaning, its primary thrust.
In its print issue of June 24, 2016, The Wall Street Journal ran my masterpiece column on Shelley’s Ozymandias under the heading “What Trumps Vain Boasts.” The editors, not the author, are responsible for the headlines and sub-heads, so I am not tooting my own horn in calling it a brilliant headline, and perfectly appropriate because “Ozymandias” deals a devastating blow to the boastful vanity of despots. Shelley’s sonnet presses the case for poetry as opposed to statuary – and for the spirit of art to triumph over the meanness of human nature as represented by the self-glorifying “King of Kings,” with his “sneer of cold command.” Here are the last five lines of Shelley’s great sonnet:
‘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.
About these lines I wrote that
. . . the magnificence of the poem’s conclusion goes beyond rhetoric. The disjunction between “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” and the curt sentence that follows, “Nothing beside remains,” is a breathtaking example of how a poet can use the line-break as a meaning-making mechanism.
The phrase “colossal wreck,” a near oxymoron, is as landlocked in the poem’s last three lines as the ruined statue in the endless desert. The alliteration—“boundless and bare, The lone and level sands stretch far away”—smoothly conveys a sense of the vast continuous distance covered in that “stretch.”
In “Ozymandias,” Shelley, the brash idealist, argues against tyranny itself—“the [ruler’s] frown, / And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command”—in the course of presenting the evidence that time defeats despots with their monumental vanity.
The segue to Emma Lazarus’s Statue of Liberty sonnet was a logical way to conclude:
“The New Colossus” (1883), Emma Lazarus’s stirring sonnet about the Statue of Liberty, borrows a rhyme from “Ozymandias” (stand, land, command) and invites us to read it as a rejoinder to Shelley’s sonnet. The statue in Lazarus’s poem is a replacement for the Colossus of Rhodes, “the brazen giant of Greek fame.” The great bronze monument to the sun god, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, stood in the harbor of Rhodes. (It crumbled in an earthquake in 226 B.C.) Not as a warrior with “conquering limbs” but as a woman with “mild eyes” and “silent lips,” the new colossus will stand as tall as the old, honoring not a god but an ideal that will make it a wonder of the modern world. The legend in Lazarus’s poem could be construed as the opposite of a tyrant’s imperial vanity:
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
The thrust of the essay, then, was captured neatly in the headline: “What Trumps Vain Boasts.” On the newspaper’s website, the nineteen comments generated by the piece confirm my feeling that the headline, punning on “trump,” was decisive in forming the reaction to my column. It would be entirely too easy for any reader to identify the tyrant of the poem with the current occupant of the White House.The “headline risk” in this case, then, is that the pun overwhelms the primary sense of “trumps” as a verb, derived from bridge, whist, and other card games, meaning “to defeat an opponent.” The effect is that the argument that poetry defeats politics is crucially modified by the knowledge that people cannot help reading the piece as precisely a political allegory. Ay, there's the rub.
I recommend reading the comments as if they were quotes pulled from multiple reviews. Of the nineteen, I enjoyed Richard Lentz's haiku trio:
Poster child for term limits
Keeps his head in sand
Cannot withstand erosion
Trunkless man indeed.
Tweets carved in sandstone
Another faulty hard drive
Our stuff’s in the cloud
Here’s a quick sampling of the highly partisan back-and-forth:
David C Smith
The poet struts his politics upon the little stage and then, his smirk dissolving in the weedy smoke, fades out. The statue stays.
A pity that the analysis of a "masterwork" has been subtly suborned for crassly partisan ends.
Even before I read the comments I knew - I just knew - people would turn this into a defense of Trump the president instead of the use of the verb 'trump.”
One of the most beautiful of essays. Hats off to WSJ for printing this. Few, if any, other papers go this far.
David Chu felt that title of the piece “was rather gratuitous,” and one ironist,T. Tatka, noted: “Percy created Ozymandias and his wife, Mary, created Frankenstein. A coincidence?”