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Shelley’s Sonnet ‘Ozymandias’: An Exercise in Reading a Poem

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Dr Katherine Bowers.

Literary critics engage in a wide range of approaches to texts. One approach – made famous in Cambridge in the early 20th I.A. Richards – showed how a text functions in the actual reading experience. Close examination of a text, and our response to it, aims to increase our understanding about several literary/ linguistic matters. For example, we gain a better sense of a text’s complexities and richnesses – and consequently, why the text is valued highly in the literary tradition as an important contribution. Such a close reading must, to be effective, rely upon a critic’s wide knowledge of the literary tradition within which the chosen text is a part. And it relies on the critic’s knowledge of a variety of literary theories (the consciously-articulated principles of literary criticism). Literary theory also involves a knowledge of central characteristics of language, often drawn from poets and other artists, as well as from philosophers. Language is, after all, the medium in which literature occurs. Hence, a familiarity with sophisticated and often not well-understood qualities of language is important for criticism as much as for poetry. Poets often know more about language than almost anyone else, including philosophers of language, because they get to know the subtleties of language well in the course of working closely with its most sophisticated forms. Therefore, when we focus upon a single poem, such as a short sonnet, we must expect, in seeking to identify its more important details, for the critic to draw upon other poems of a similar kind or in a similar period. And critics will also refer to notable remarks poets have made in their prose writings about poetry. In addition, aspects of literary theory, particularly those that tell us about language itself, will be brought to bear. Finally, drawing upon conventions well-established in the relevant literary tradition will help to shed light on the chosen poem. By these means, we gain a better sense of why reading literature intelligently – with sophisticated literary tools – can be invaluable for shedding light on the human mind itself and how its creative faculties function in experience, in perception, and in artistic creation. ‘Ozymandias’ is an ideal choice, since its extreme compression, when unpacked, tells us much about art, language, and how the human mind can interact with the world more imaginatively and more effectively.

This talk is part of the Darwin College Humanities and Social Sciences Group series.

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