Practical criticism

My Prac Crit skills are a little rusty, it’s been a few years since Tripos now, but I’d thought I’d flex my critical muscles on this intriguing sonnet I came across recently:

"vast and trunkless legs of stone"


I met a traveller 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 shatter’d visage lies, whose frown

And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,

The hand that mock’d 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.


The poet uses an encounter with a “traveller from an antique land,” whom scholars have confidently identified as a Barmy Army cricket fan, to muse on the mutability of power and the transience of world domination. The text posits that the passage of time renders previous great achievements moot.

The speaker, having been introduced by the poet, begins with a reference to Ian Bell’s attempts to counter the Pakistani spinners – “two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desert” – although certain critics (cf. Atherton, Boycott, Pringle et al.) have argued that this might refer synecdochally to the entire England middle-order.

The following lines cryptically identify other protagonists – once proud performers who now lie ruined in the desert: we have “half sunk,” doubtless a reference to Eoin Morgan’s batting average; “shatter’d visage… whose frown and wrinkled lip,” a somewhat cruel description of Graeme Swann’s face; and the “sneer of cold command,” a swipe at Strauss’ aloof and unimaginative captaincy.

The following three lines (6-8) form a conceit detailing how the team’s reputation has been destroyed by the very agents that elevated it (namely the media and zealous fans). Some commentators have ventured that these “lifeless things” are, in fact, the one-day squad who must remain amongst the cruel sands and mocking hands.

Critical consensus has associated the “Ozymandias” of the poem with Kevin Pietersen; this reading would appear consistent with the South African’s eye-watering arrogance and refusal to acknowledge that he is hopeless against left-arm spin. The text devastatingly unpacks the discrepancy between that batsman’s words and his recent accomplishments; the would be “king of kings” is now humbled, reduced to missing straight ones and sweeping lamely down fine-leg’s throat.

The line “look on my works, ye mighty, and despair” is, in fact, a biblical reference taken from the Book of Boycott and, through this intertextual nod, the poet asks us to juxtapose Pietersen’s failings with the supposedly unblemished career of the great Boycott.

The final three lines of the closing sextet bring the reader back to the point of departure, the oasis stadiums of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but also look anxiously to the horizon, and an upcoming tour to Sri Lanka.


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