John and George, as is their weekly custom, meet Wednesday, November 4, 7:00 p.m., at the gas fireplace in the social room of their retirement home. It is time to once again sip fine scotch and share their thoughts.
John pours a shot for his friend and George pours a drink for John. Pouring each other’s drinks has become a ritual, somehow making the evening special, or as George would say, “sharing…it gives us a touch of the spiritual.”
John leans back in his large comfortable chair and says, “Hopefully by the time we meet next week we will know who the President is. You know, the drama in last night’s election brought to mind the current yet age-old struggle for power. I was reminded of my favorite poem that speaks of addiction to power as well as living on after death through one’s accomplishments while alive. The poem is Ozymandias. The title character was also known as Rameses II, the Pharaoh of Egypt over 3,000 years ago. The author Percy Shelley was interested in issues of political power, life, and death throughout his short life. He drowned in a storm while sailing alone at age 29.”
George adds, “Yes, I remember that Percy Shelley and his wife Mary spent social time with Lord Byron where Byron suggested they have a contest to see who could write the best ghost story. Mary’s short story raised questions of life and death and later became the novel Frankenstein.”
“That’s right,” says John. “In another friendly competition, Percy Shelley and his friend Horace Smith both wrote sonnets, you know, fourteen line poems metered in iambic pentameter, to see who could write the best sonnet. Percy’s sonnet did not conform to a specific meter making it difficult to call it iambic pentameter, but it was a sonnet nonetheless.”
“Okay, okay. I know what a sonnet is,” responds George with a fake sarcastic grin.
“Anyway,” continues John, “Shelley’s poem, published in 1818, three weeks before Smith’s, became famous. The poem explores the ravages of time even as it visits the powerful.”
“Yes,” responds George. “I have always loved the poem Ozymandias but didn’t realize it was written in a competition.”
“Would you like for me to read it?”
“That would be nice,” says George taking a sip of scotch. “maybe it will help put recent events in perspective.”
John removes a time-yellowed paper from his pocket, looks at the poem written there, sets the paper down, and speaks from memory:
Ozymandias by Percy Shelley (1792 – 1822)
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 shattered visage lies, whose frown, and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, tell that its sculptor well those passions read which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear: “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.
When John finishes the sonnet he falls into silence, along with George he looks into the fireplace, and for a while both lives dwell in past memories. Eventually John looks at his friend and asks, “What do you think?”
“I think it is true,” responds George.
“What else do you think, George?”
“Well, you know, the poem gets me thinking of a hot air balloon ride my kids gave me a few years ago for my birthday. I flew above the city and the nearby foothills being surprised by the peace and oneness I felt with old buildings, people I knew, and the ancient foothills framing the city. Such peace and harmony with the environment below have been hard for me to come by on the ground where I am experiencing way too much tension and isolation.
“I also find it interesting that the poem looks at life from a perspective of time and my balloon ride emphasized the space I was in rather than time. Today, I believe our time is calling us to fill the empty space before us with meaningful living and care for our brothers and sisters.”
John adds, “Shelley’s sonnet shows the folly of hubris, that is, extensive arrogance and cold commands time inevitably destroys.”
“Yes,” says George. “And, paradoxically, sonnets are generally thought of as a format for love poems. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Shelley used the context of undying love to present the terminality of hubris even when expressed by such a power as Ozymandias. I believe Shelley is subtly saying true power is found in love.”
“Yes,” responds George. “The perspective provided by timeless moments spent in the balloon ride reminds me that where our space is provides the place where time is used to express our values for good or ill. Our space is the context to express love or hate, caring or indifference, depending on how we choose to focus our time. This is true in our personal lives as well as the life of our country.”
The two men once again fall into silence. Eventually John confesses, “I really don’t know what else to say right now.”
“Me either,” says George.
The two old men sit quietly for the next half hour sipping the scotch they had poured for each other. Then, without saying a word, they slowly lift themselves from their chairs, smile and wave from a distance of six feet, forgoing their traditional hug. They arrive at their separate rooms, private thoughts in hand.
As the two old friends, I and perhaps you as well, need some quiet time to think.
(This article was completed November 4, 2020 pior to finalized election results between President Trump and former Vice-President Biden.)
Written by: Hartzell Cobbs
Hartzell Cobbs is the retired CEO of Mountain States Group (now Jannus, Inc.), a diverse nonprofit human service organization. He is the author of the recent book, RavenWind, that is available through outlets such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Archway Publishing. His first book, Thanatos and the Sage: A Spiritual Approach to Aging, is available through Amazon.
More about Dr. Cobbs’ latest book, Ravenwind…
From ancient lore, down millenniums, traveling through worldwide mythologies, legends, and folktales, the mythical raven is entwined in the history of mankind. Most researchers agree that about twenty thousand years ago the first Americans came from Siberia across the Bering Land Bridge to what is now North America. The Siberians and their shamans were accompanied by the mythical raven who mediated between the physical and spiritual worlds.
With the Siberian influence, Northwest Native American mythology speaks of the raven as creator, destroyer, and trickster. As in Siberia, raven soars on the wind between the great spirit/mystery and the physical world. Raven teaches respect for earth and the oneness of all that is.
In RavenWind, author Hartzell Cobbs offers at look at the raven’s role in world history and in Native American myths, legends, and folktales. He tells how the raven of folklore calls one to follow, to listen, and experience life with all its complexity, insight, ambiguity, contraction, and humor. With an emphasis on Native American tradition, Cobbs explores the presence of mythical raven in the mundane.