Comparative Essay - 'Tissue' and 'Ozymandias' and their Treatment of Power

Compare the treatment of power in ‘Ozymandias’ and ‘Tissue’

The one-word titles differ in terms of the level of ambiguity involved, and the ambiguity in the latter (it means paper, skin and, at a push, networks) leads one to consider the relative complexities of the poems. Both examine versions of totalitarian power but, whereas ‘Ozymandias’ notes its limits, ‘Tissue’, despite the obfuscated positivity of its ending, examines a version of totalitarianism that still reigns – that of Islamic control over women’s bodies.

On a sub-textual level, the theme of the former poem is that, no matter your achievements when briefly dancing upon this mortal coil, time and nature will eventually swallow them. The poem was written in for a game with Shelley’s friend, Horace Smith, who, on discovering that a statue of Ramesses II, the longest serving Pharaoh in the history of ancient Egypt and the father of over fifty male children, was to be displayed at the British Museum, decided an appropriate response to the news would be to write competing sonnets. Ramesses was rumoured to be fond of having his name carved especially deeply into the pedestals that bore his legend and of altering statues of former rulers so they resembled him, and the speech attributed to him in the poem is a paraphrased version of a legend on an actual statue. ‘Tissue’ is more dialogic: sub-textually, it unfolds a thematic dichotomy between two versions of tissue: that which is held to be of worth – the “structure never mean to last” – and worthy of being the subjects of semi permanency through being recorded in books and what might, idiomatically, be termed a ‘tissue of lies’: “the buildings and the monuments and the mosques” – “the shapes that pride can make”.

Both poems also operate on a deeper sub-textual level: the more easily evident themes mask something deeper, more profound. At the deepest sub-textual level, ‘Ozymandias’ is an examination of the value of art as the only available means of satirising totalitarian power and, perhaps, as a better means of achieving a version of immortality than power itself; ‘Tissue’, like most of Dharker’s work, is a ‘veiled’ attack on the treatment of human contact and of females and, specifically, their freedom to express their femininity in one of the world’s major religions: it is veiled under a gauze of obfuscation that may be there for matters of self preservation. Dharker’s first collection was entitled ‘Purdah’ and her poem ‘Purdah 1’ describes the niqab as being “the earth that falls on coffins after they put dead men in” and that its job is to teach “shame”; the pictures she draws to accompany every poem, when of Muslim women, always have their eyes cut out; she wrote a collection called ‘I Speak for the Devil’ which she has described as being focused on the fact that women’s bodies “are not their own”; and any wide reading of her work would detect that its theme is often (or always) male or theocratic control over female bodies. Here, the dichotomy is between humanity and relationships (with implied at the very deepest sub-textual level that “living tissue, a structure never meant to last” might be taken to be metaphorical for the touch of skin on skin at its most primal level). The antithesis here is contained in the “shapes that pride can make” which Dharkher had described as, "all the things we build to try and make ourselves feel safe and secure: the temples and churches and mosques, and the monuments.” Of note is the fact that only one element of those listed on the negative side of the dichotomy is even arguably secular.

So both poems examine totalitarianism but, in one, oppression comes from a single despotic tyrant; in the other, in which tissue becomes a metaphor for skin, which forms a further metaphor for touch, which forms a metaphor for relationships, which forms a submerged and obfuscated metaphor for sex, the subjugation comes from a religion’s control over this key form of human expression. In both poems, the oppressor is male.

Structurally, ‘Ozymandias’ is a hybrid of a Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnet that is predominantly Petrarchan due to the fact it separates down into an octave and a sestet. ‘Tissue’ is nine quatrains and a single-line stanza. One is in a classical form whereas the other is determinedly modernist and, at times, willfully ungrammatical: “Maps too.” “Paper that lets the light shine through, this.” (The comma linking the main clauses is deliberately incorrect to create a stress on “this” in a poem that seems to yearn somewhat hopelessly for a solution). There is debate regarding the position of the volta in the sonnet. A classical Petrarchan sonnet would have the turnaround on line nine, “And on the pedestal these words appear”, and this is plausible as it would serve as an emblematic volta focusing on the meaning of an object. A Shakespearean sonnet would have the arguably glib staging point between problem and resolution on line thirteen “of that colossal wreck …” (though this is unlikely given the enjambment leading into the line). It seems most likely that the volta in this unconventional sonnet is, unconventionally, on line twelve, “Nothing beside remains”. Here, we switch viewpoint from Ramesses himself to, arguably, the first person invisible narrator, who makes ironic comment on the Pharaoh’s vaingloriousness: this would make the volta both ironic and retrospective/prospective. A further technique, which could be argued to exist to place distance between the poet’s views and that of the despot is that of a quite extreme form of endistancing (having a character tell the narrator a story): there are three narrators: the first person invisible, the “traveler from an antique land” (who may or may not be the Great Belzoni: the statue’s discoverer, an Italian) and the tyrant himself. ‘Tissue’ seems to focus shift, in terms of the intrinsic morality implicit in the nouns used from consideration of two versions of tissue – that ‘of worth’ and that ‘of lies’. The erratic use of rhyme seems to have, as a gossamer structural device, the repetition of the ‘a’ rhyme “light’, “kite” and “might” as a foundation to the switching dichotomy: “light” is manifestly good; “might” in terms of the abstract noun rather than the modal verb, is good’s antithesis; “kites” are ambiguous – alleged symbols of freedom that are actually controlled by an external hand. The poem switches from consideration of the objects that should appear in books to those structures that dominate and spends brief periods contemplating ambiguities. What does Dharker feel about the (misspelt) “Koran”? How about the “architect”? His “design”?

Metrically, ‘Ozymandias’ is in pentameter that is not always iambic and in which there are metrical exceptions, both real and apparent. The first line appears to be in hendecasyllables but “traveler” can be contracted into a disyllable leaving the sole metrical exception as that in which Ramesses announces himself, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings”. It may be that the syllabification of this line deliberately puffs up the rhythm of Ramesses’ speech to metrically emphasise his vaingloriousness, or it may be that the word “‘Ozymandias’” has so many syllables that Shelley could not make meaning of a line in decasyllables. ‘Tissue’ is metrically irregular, switching from trimeter to tetrameter, but it’s most interesting element is the use of substitutions on “Maps too” and “or block”. These create a caesura in which one might consider the morality of the map, or whether the bluntness of the alliteration on, “build again with brick or block” relates to the intellectual density of the builders.

In terms of use of rhetoric, Dharker uses a polysyndetic tricolon “pages smoothed and stroked and turned” to extend out the action of someone considering a work of literature (as she, herself, is doing in a metaphorical manner in the poem) and then uses an incrementally repeated version of the same line, “paper smoothed and stroked and thinned” to lead to an oblique comparison of paper, the ‘tissue’ on which books are recorded, to skin, the tissue that, as a metaphor for human touch and relationships, should appear in books. There is the hint of polsyndeton in the depiction of Ramesses’ face lodged in the sand, “whose frown, and wrinkled lip, and sneer”, and this listing structure serves as the basis for the deepest sub-theme as it records the elements of the sculptor’s skill that remain. Sibilance is used in both poems to sonically mirror the landscape and create the sound of something rubbing on itself: Dharker’s “slips from grocery shops that say how much was sold” might be taken to represent the sound of paper against paper (“smoothed and stroked”) while the sibilant consonance of “sands stretch” could plausibly mirror the sound of sand on sand.

It is the older poem that features lines that pulse in neon, and one can see, despite the puzzle-like playfulness of its origination, why it has survived. The statement of the Pharaoh has entered the culture as a cipher for the impotent vanity of power and, indeed, all human existence. But perhaps the most interesting line is enigmatic, “the hand that mocked them and the heart that fed” in that, to a casual observer, the hand might be Ramesses’ own, when, in fact, it is the quietly satirical eye of the sculptor achieving near immortality through being made stone. The Dharker poem – the exquisiteness of which is in its level of abstraction – is, because of its probably necessary (for the self preservation of its author) level of obfuscation, perhaps less telling, less open to grasp and, therefore, less likely to achieve the, maybe slightly ironic, level of immortality of Shelley’s most famous work.   

Added Fri, 31 Dec 2021 08:47

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