The Withering Visage of a King

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?




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3 Responses to The Withering Visage of a King

  1. Stephanie Van Dewark says:

    I love the parallels you drew between Ozymandias and Arthur. I think you are right, Arthur’s reign is different from other kings because it is not based on material items. There were no great statues to wear away after his death, there is only the memory of his legacy, and in the end I think this is why the story of King Arthur is so long lasting. The values of his reign, a fellowship based on equality, are prized more than bravery or material wealth.

  2. OliviaH says:

    Great post!

    I think it is really interesting how Arthur’s value of something more than just materialism and reputation evokes the idea that Arthur is a good king, whereas Ozymandias’ desire for a statue to preserve his status is seen as a form of arrogance. What is the definition of a good king? In our current materialistic society, it is not hard to see the desire behind material wealth, but I think, like what Stephanie mentioned, there are other values more important than materialistic goods and we can find these values throughout history.


  3. jddieu says:

    Great use of supporting evidence for your argument. Indeed, it is very evident the motives behind each kingship, Ozymandias for materialized glory, boasting greatness and Arthur who is gracious and dignified, a noble king who serves his people.
    As you said, Arthur did not necessarily seek immortality as Ozymandias did by constructing the image of himself, now withered away, yet I suppose they are each both structured by their culture and their times. For a great Egyptian king like Ozymandias it is not uncommon to have such elaborate fixtures and statues dedicated to him, pyramids built for their tombs, et cetera. And so, in like manner, perhaps the Arthurian way of being immortalized was through, initially, the word of mouth, his followers and close friends passing on the story of his great feats and portrayals of his righteousness, and through the passage of time this is transcribed down onto written texts where the legend of King Arthur becomes exaggerated and mystified. Perhaps in this way, King Arthur also found his immortality, as we read of him (or a form of him) this day.
    As you have mentioned the topic of history, I feel that history does have a “oneness”. It is written in the past, unchanging. Yet whether we can properly and fully encapsulated every event is impossible. Recorded history is only a slender facet of the Whole, often lacking much but also often embellished through time and imagination, turning fact into fiction and fiction into fact, withering kings into sand or emblazoning them into immortality.

    John Dieu

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