The Asian world has always been a mystery for the Western civilization; the former lives according its own laws which the European culture conceive completely, envisions the world, its origins and the way its elements intertwine in harmony in a slightly different way than the Western civilization does; in addition, the Oriental culture uses a range of symbolic which is completely alien to the Western world and can be hardly associated with anything, while triggering a chain of emotions within the heart of an Oriental dweller.
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However, either because of its colorfulness and vividness, or because these details stir people’s imagination so easily and with such tremendous effect, the Oriental themes, especially in poetry, were extremely popular in the Era of Romanticism, making the fascination with the Eastern world one of its key features.
As Carruthers and Rawers (2003) explain, “Romantic Orientalism has historically been written and read from a European perspective” (p. 117). Because of the impact of the epoch, Ozymandias and Alastor, Percy Bische Shelly’s two most famous poems, display a considerable amount of details which can be referred to as the explicit manifestations of Orientalism.
One of the first things that fall into the eye of the reader at the very beginning of the poems is the unusual names, Ozymandias and Alastor. The former, interpreted as Ramesses’ throne name, sends the reader into the heat of the Egyptian sun and, thus, makes one plunge into the Oriental world almost instantly.
In addition, the name also immediately riggers an entire cadence of reminiscences connected with the famous emperor, thus, setting quite tragic back-story which an experienced reader can see between the lines of the poem: “In Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias of Egypt,’ is the Oriental potentate on the pedestal now a ‘’colossal wreck, boundless and bare’ because of a unique Oriental despotism?” (p. 281), Varisco (2007) asks.
As for the Alastor, although the name and, thus, the subplot for the poem originates from the Roman mythology and, thus, can be hardly referred to as the one filled with Orientalism elements, there are still recognizable traces of the above-mentioned phenomenon in the poem. In addition, the sound of the name was exotic enough for the poet too use it in the same way the Oriental elements were, i.e., to shock viewers into paying attention to the hidden innuendoes in the poem.
Among the rest of the elements which point at the obvious Orientalism of both poems, the use of settings is rather wise and efficient: In Ozymandias, the author puts a special emphasis on the fact that the events take place in the desert and sand, which is basically the place most people associate with Asian settings:
Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies (Shelley, 1818)
Therefore, with the help of two words, “sand” and “desert,” Shelley managed to transfer the audience right into the heart of the Oriental world instantly. However, the chosen tactics works in the poem because it is relatively short, which is not the case for Alastor. As for the latter, Shelly refuses to use the same tactics in the poem; it must be admitted that the following scenery:
the world’s youth: through the long burning day
Gazed on those speechless shapes; nor, when the moon
Filled the mysterious halls with floating shades
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Suspended he that task (para.122-126)
can actually be observed in any corner of the world. Unlike in Ozymandias, in Alastor Shelley uses rather the specific imagery than the exotic words to add Orientalism to the poem: the Arab maiden brings the food to the leading character (Shelley 1815, para.129).
The difference in the choices of the means can be explained by the fact that, unlike in Alastor, where the author had a lot of room for vast descriptions, in Ozymandias it was necessary to keep the poem short and expressive; hence, the exotic terms were used as the means to transport the audience to the Oriental settings.
Shelley obviously not only adds certain Oriental elements to the common environment, but sets his narration in a completely new environment, with its specific features. According to Uddin Khan (2008),
In Alastor, the poet-protagonist’s journey takes him back through human history (that is, Arabia, Persia, over the Hindu Kush mountains, which form the Indian Caucasus extending from Afghanistan to Kashmir in north-west India) to the thrilling secrets of the birth of time (p. 47)
Therefore, the poet obviously wants to capture the air of the Asian mysteries in a capsule and convey the specific flair of the Orient world to the readers. Reading the poem turns into walking across the uncharted universes and revealing its secrets; and with the help of specific details, Shelley restores the specific Asian atmosphere.
As Oueijan (n.d.) explains, “In “Ozymandias” (1817–1818), Shelley asserts an “antique land” in order to reveal the emptiness of pomp and power” (p. 8).
What particularly fascinated Shelley was the way in which Owenson “uses Kashmir as a paradisal image for that ideal interior landscape of the fulfilled psyche” (Hoeveler, 2006, p. 168).
However, it is worth mentioning that Shelly also avoided using the elements which he knew little about: “Shelley did not go to Egypt, and neither of his Egyptian sonnets – “To the Nile” and of course “Ozymandias” – mentions the Pyramids, which is logical enough; following the tradition of Romanticism, Shelley writes about the cultures which are quite distant from the European ones and yet does not go into details, allowing the readers to restore the atmosphere of the mysterious worlds themselves.
Speaking of the major Orientalism elements in the poems, one must mention that both poems focus on rather grandeur events in the history of the Eastern world, which can also be considered another important element making the poems Orientalist. As Thomas (2012) explains,
Two specific features of Orientalism are significant both for European Orientalist studies (of India, especially) and for subsequent Indian and Filipino political-intellectual projects: first, Orientalism’s focus on authoritative texts, and, second, its narrative on historical decline from ancient greatness. (25)
Indeed, Ozymandias tells about the rapid destruction of the great empire built by powerful pharaohs, which corresponds to the key concept of the Oriental literature. Likewise, Alastor touches upon the collapse of the world, yet in the case of the latter, it is not the empire, but the world of the narrator, the Poet, which is ruined:
Of the vast meteor sunk, the Poet’s blood,
That ever beat in mystic sympathy
With nature’s ebb and flow, grew feebler still (para.651-654)
Therefore, it is obvious that Shelley uses the typical Orientalism strategies to build a fully realistic universe. However, it would be a mistake to think that the elements of the Oriental culture which were used by Shelley in his poems were completely authentic; these were rather the common ideas of what the Oriental world must look like instead of its true portrayal and carefully verified details.
This is the type of the “middle-eastern world’s own exotic ‘Orientalism,’ for which Europe had become a late eighteenth century dependent customer” (p. 48), as Niyogi (2006) put it. Taking an exotic detail and pushing it to the stage when it became almost grotesque, Shelley crated his own Oriental universe, rather impressive, yet not necessarily true to the facts.
One of the most peculiar features of the poet’s creations, this feature on no account should be considered as a drawback which diminishes the quality of his works, but rather a feature of the epoch, with its taste for the unknown and unraveled. Offering true details would have ruined the charm of the poems.
True gems of the era of Orientalism, Ozymandias and Alastor offer a travel into the world which hardly anyone can imagine; not only is this a travel back in time, but also an excursion into the mysterious oriental universe, the place created by Romanticists and for Romanticists.
Addressing all major elements of Orientalism, the poems still make certain changes to the traditional perception of the Oriental world and create a different universe, which are completely impeccable in their weirdness. Even despite certain inaccuracies in the description of the distant world, the poems are the pearls which are worth taking a close look at.
Carruthers, G & Rawers, A 2003, English Romanticism and the Celtic world, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
Hoeveler, D L & Cass, J D 2006, Interrogating Orientalism: contextual approaches and pedagogical practices, Ohio State University, Columbia, OH.
Niyogi, C 2006, Reorienting Orientalism, Thousand Oaks, CA, SAGE.
Oueijan, N B n.d., ‘Romantic Orientalism LU lecture,’ retrieved from Lebanon Notre Dame University, ul.edu.lb website.
Shelley, P B 1815, Alastor, or the spirit of solitude. Web.
Shelley, P B 1818, ‘Ozymandias.’ Web.
Thomas, M C 2012, Orientalists, propagandists, and illustrators: Filipino scholarship at the end of Spanish Colonialism, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI.
Uddin Khan, J 2008, ‘Shelley’s Orientalia: Indian elements in his poetry,’ ATLANTIS. Journal of the Spanish Association of Anglo-American Studies, vol.30 no.1, pp. 35–51.
Varisco, D M 2007, Reading Orientalism: said and the unsaid, University of Washington Press, Seattle, WA.