In Idylls of the King, the changing seasons coincide with the rise and fall of Arthur. In contrast, Shelly’s Ozymandias depicts a “boundless and bare” (13) scene lost in the progressing sands that “stretch far away” (14). A timeless, rhythmic static represents the seasonless period of history where the wholeness of men erodes with time, and mighty faces become a “shattered visage” (4). But what sustains history? Is it only through the breath of fantasized fragments? I think there are always “fragments of forgotten people” (“The Passing of Arthur” 84) under the surface waiting to be rediscovered, and I think Tennyson’s endeavor to write an epic depicts how cycles of civilization map history.
King Arthur’s shattered face becomes a “withered moon” (381), “parched with dust” (386)—the fullness of his reign waning into the sands of nothing. Is fear of the forgotten face what drives kings to imprint themselves on materiality? Unlike Ozymandias, I think Arthur accepts the reality of fleeting bodily existence, and the cycle of civilization. He requests a barge so he may “vanish into light” (468) and “pass on” (467). He does not want his “shattered column” (389) to remain in fragments, because he would rather “come again” in the memories and breaths of future kings. His end yields place for the new year (469). Ozymandias comes across as much more vain, and a king unwilling to face his end and accept how sands of history will fade the marks of his existence. His imprint on stone becomes a “lifeless thing” (7), while Arthur survives through somber acceptance of his fall. Arthur requests Excalibur’s disposal because he does not want a lifeless thing to summarize and encapsulate his reign. Sir Bedivere lacks faith in Arthur’s decision, and questions the importance of a king’s “things”:
What record, or what relic of my lord
Should be to aftertime, but empty breath
And rumors of doubt? But were this kept
Stored in some treasure-house of might kings,
Some one might show it at a jousts of arms,
Saying, ‘King Arthur’s sword, Excalibur’ (266-271)
Hypothetically, the preservation of Excalibur would foreshadow the seasonless history in “Ozymandias.” The sword would transform into mighty work of despair (11).
Arthur has the desire to live “one life” (“The Coming of Arthur” 90) and reign “one will in everything” (91). In “The Coming of Arthur,” the knighthood’s song describes the hallowed existence of the King—anointed by the oneness of God,“[t]he King will follow Christ” (499). “Ozymandias” shadows the same tone. He is a “King of Kings” (10) who desires oneness; he fashions a statue to outlive his bodily existence and mark history with his essence. But like bodily existence, the whole body of history decays and renews in the “ever-shifting sand” (“The Passing of Arthur” 86). There is no “oneness” to history, but rather fragments and traces—an old statue eroding and yielding place for the new (“The Coming of Arthur” 508). Is history ever truly written, or is it only composed of traces fashioned to suit the current cultural context? In the case of Idylls of the King and “Ozymandias”, how do these writings of history appease the Romantics and Victorians? How would these texts change if written now?