Hadley J. Mozer “‘Ozymandias,’ or de Casibus Lord Byron: Literary Celebrity on the Rocks.” European Romantic Review 21.6 (2010):727-749.
Hadley Mozer’s article arguing that Shelley’s sonnet should be read as a lecture to Byron on the vanity of his celebrity won Article of the Year at the 2010 NASSR conference. I attended the conference, and heard several highly complimentary things said of the piece. So when I returned to the article to study its merits more closely, I was somewhat surprised.
The first surprise—a pleasant one—was finding the cleverness of the title recurring throughout the essay. The writing is playful, witty, and a pleasure to read. But despite the charm of Mozer’s wordplay, I found myself not only unconvinced by Mozer’s argument, but convinced that it was a stretch. Mozer’s argument that Shelley experienced a sense of inferiority to Byron in the late 18-teens was well-researched, well-argued, and not, I would think, particularly controversial. Locating in ‘Ozymandias’ an early start to Shelley’s poetic engagements with Byron seemed an intriguing prospect, but the evidence Mozer presents in letters and other poems provide at best circumstantial support. Mozer’s shift to critical interest in identifying the Shelley’s source for the “shattered visage” provides a wealth of historical detail and successfully engages it to disprove earlier claims, and support the interpretation that Shelley’s statuary remains are not based on any actual Egyptian statuary.
Mozer’s archival work is impressive, but the leap from “not based on Egyptian statuary” to “based on Byronic portraits” is questionable. Byron’s poetry, portraits, and bust, along with their reproductions, provide ample evidence that one public version of Byron, the arrogant, brooding Byronic hero, has features which resemble Shelley’s poetic description of the statue of Ozymandias. But Mozer’s claim that this resemblance is the result of Shelley’s attempt to “Byronize” the pharoah in order to critique the poet is problematic. The pharoah’s obessions with monuments to himself could plausibly evoke the image-management in which Byron engaged, but only if we accept Mozer’s claim that Shelley “Byronizes” the statue of Ozymandias, which I found to be the article’s weakest claim, seductive though it was.
Similarly, the genre argument that this ekphrastic sonnet should be read as a de casibus poem held some appeal initially, but the connections between “Ozymandias” and a form of history writing and moral instruction long associated with tragedy are not as strong as one woule hope. Perhaps further research will strengthen what appears in this article as an intriguing possibility. But by Mozer’s own acknowledgement, Shelley departs from de casibus tradition in so many ways, it seems as though any influence the genre might have had on the poem was not enough to merit the claim that the sonnet is a de casibus poem. Mozer’s argument that Byron at least may have read it in this fashion, as supported by the end of canto 1 of Don Juan, is excitingbut under-investigated.
Mozer’s essay demonstrates exemplary writing and research, and the argument itself is provacative, if not entirely persuasive. If “Ózymandias” is indeed “a veiled de casibus meditation on the vanity of Byron’s literary celebrity,” I would argue that the veil is quite thick (743). Yet if, as article of the year, this essay represents the work Romanticists want to see in journal publications, then there are several implications for graduate students. Here are a few: 1) Make a bold claim; 2) Integrate archival research; and, 3) Be playful.
A bold claim should be plausible and provocative, but needn’t necessarily be proven—or even provable. Our job isn’t so much to solve a problem, but to lay out a problem’s parameters and poke around its implications. The more boldly you do that, the more interesting the essay is to read, as long as you have sufficient support.
In answer to that caveat is point two: archival research. We all love it. Finding unusual or neglecting archival materials is a favorite tactic among scholars in the humanties. Applying such texts to a problem and integrating them into an ongoing scholarly debate is highly attractive. Half the seduction of Mozer’s article, for me at least, comes from the manner in which archival research is integrated into the argument.
Charm is also seductive. The more fun it is to read an article, the more seductive the argument appears. An argument may be rich in data supporting a claim which could change the course of literary scholarship, but the accessibility of the argument makes it readable and widens its circulation. In this case, I would argue that the wit and charm of the writing makes it a more appealing read than the argument merits, but this only showcases my own claim—that allowing yourself to be witty and playful in your writing will make your argument more attractive to your readership.
If you have a response to Mozer’s article or our review, please do chime in.