# 1557: Ozymandias

(Redirected from 1557)
 Ozymandias Title text: And on the pedestal these words appear: "And on the pedestal these words appear: "And on the pedestal these words appear: "And...

## Explanation

Ponytail is reciting the opening of "Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley (see text below).

The poem Ozymandias is about the last vestiges of a once-great civilization that has since been lost to history. The poem is based on nested quotations: the poet, speaking to the reader, quotes a "traveler", who ultimately quotes words carved in the pedestal of a crumbling statue. When people recite the poem, they add yet another level of nesting, as the reader is quoting the poet, who's quoting the traveler, who's quoting the pedestal.

When Ponytail recites this poem, rather than reciting it normally, she adds more layers of recursive nesting, suggesting that she heard the story from a traveler, who heard it from another traveler, who heard it from another traveler. It's not clear how many layers of nesting this goes through before the rest of the text is cited (or whether the recursion is infinite).

The title similarly plays with recursion, quoting a pedestal which quotes a string of other pedestals.

The quotes are not nested properly, as they never end. So there is only the starting quotation mark (") for each quote. If she ever finishes there would be one closing quotation mark for each quote in the recursion at the end of her sentence. See 859: (.

A similar joke was used in 785: Open Mic Night

### Ozymandias text

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 shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked 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."[1]
1. Percy Bysshe Shelley, "Ozymandias" in Miscellaneous and Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley (London: W. Benbow, 1826), 100.

## Transcript

[Ponytail, with her arms stretched out, is addressing Cueball.]
Ponytail:
I met a traveler from an antique land
who said: "I met a traveler from an an-
tique land, who said "I met a traveler from
an antique land, who said "I met...

# Discussion

The fact that the true author of this comment may never be known is reason enough to despair.173.245.55.66 14:35, 29 July 2015 (UTC)
An unrelated but interesting piece of trivia about Ozymandias: "Ozymandias" is the Greek name of the pharaoh Ramesses II, one of the most famous of the Egyptian pharaohs, who built many monuments that still stand today. So the poem, which has a ruler whose monument has crumbled and who is implied to be nearly forgotten, is in fact completely inaccurate! JoeNotCharles (talk) 15:23, 29 July 2015 (UTC)
Perhaps the Ozymandias King of Kings from the poem is not the same one as Ozymandias the pharaoh? So he's doubly forgotten, because he has a more famous namefellow! Leoboiko (talk)

So... Planepacked? 173.245.50.145 05:44, 29 July 2015 (UTC)

The page seems to give a description, but not an explanation of the joke. I still don't get it! Why has Ozymandias been singled out for this treatment? Is there some way in which recursion is particularly appropriate or inappropriate in this case, or has it just been selected arbitrarily? Is the whole joke that recursion is inherently funny? Normally when recursion is used in XKCD it's making a larger point, or cleverly riffing on something in particular. This isn't just Describe XKCD, so I'd love to see an explanation of this comic. 141.101.99.47 09:35, 29 July 2015 (UTC)

The poem Ozymandias, like the statue of the king,can be thought of as a pinnacle of achievement for its civilizarion- in this case, English civilization. So it is entirely possible that one day, after the fall of this civilization, the poem will fill the same role for it that the statue filled for Ozymandias' (fictional) civilization. Bbruzzo (talk) 15:33, 29 July 2015 (UTC)
May it be that Ozymandias is chosen because of Smith’s poem, where at last London has vanished, suggesting that Shelley’s poem is the last remains of British civilization? --162.158.91.193 10:04, 29 July 2015 (UTC)
I think Ozymandias was chosen because its opening is particularly famous. Even people who don't know much about poetry are often passingly familiar with it, and there's something funny about playing with well-known classics. And yes, I do believe the joke is that infinite recursion is inherently funny. There's a long tradition of these recursion-jokes among computer scientists and math people (like the "GNU" acronym, or recursive index references), with precedents in xkcd itself. Leoboiko (talk)

In Germany, we have a childrens’ song „Ein Mops kam in die Küche“, which translates as follows (there are slightly different versions, though):

A pug came into the kitchen / and stole an egg from the chef. / Then the chef took his knife / and mashed the pug. // Then many pugs came / to his grave / and set a memorial for him, / where these words were written: // “A pug came into the kitchen …”

Maybe something similar exists in English? --162.158.91.193 10:04, 29 July 2015 (UTC)

We have:
This is the song that doesn't end, / Yes, it goes on and on, my friend, / Some people started singing it not knowing what it was, / And they'll continue singing it / Forever, just because [repeat] :tbc (talk) 12:34, 29 July 2015 (UTC)
There's also:
I know a song that gets on everybody's nerves, everybody's nerves, everybody's nerves,
I know a song that gets on everybody's nerves and this is how it goes...[repeat] 197.234.243.249 (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
In Dutch: "Het was nacht, stikdonkere nacht. Veertig rovers zaten rond een vuur. De roverhoofdman stond op een zei: "Het was nacht, stikdonkere nacht... " "
Which translates to something along the lines of: "It was night, a pitchblack night. 40 robbers sat round a fire, their leader stood up and said: "It was night, a pitchblack night..." "
Sometimes the fire is replaced by the shadow of a dandelion. "..Forty robbers sat in the shadow of a Dandelion, their Chief stood up and said: "It was a dark night, forty robbers sat in the shadow of a dandelion", etc. -- 141.101.104.67 13:01, 29 July 2015 (UTC)
The version I learned is: It was a dark and stormy night / and the good ship Marigold sailed the stormy seas. / The captain staggered down the steps / and said, "Mate, tell us a story!" / and the mate began, / "It was a dark and story night... --Mflansburg (talk) 15:44, 29 July 2015 (UTC)
I've heard a very long infinitely recursive song in English, which is a variant of "The Bear Went Over the Mountain". The standard lyrics are:
The bear went over the mountain, the bear went over the mountain, the bear went over the mountain to see what he could see / And all that he could see, and all that he could see / Was the other side of the mountain, the other side of the mountain, the other side of the mountain, and that's what he could see.
Well, the infinite variant goes:
The bear went over the mountain the bear went over the mountain, the bear went over the mountain to see what he could see / And all that he could see, and all that he could see / Was a valley in the mountain, a valley in the mountain, a valley in the mountain, and that's what he could see
The bear went over the mountain the bear went over the mountain, the bear went over the mountain to see what he could see / And all that he could see, and all that he could see / Was a lake in the valley, a lake in the valley, a lake in the valley, and that's what he could see
... a sailboat on the lake ...
... a man in the sailbot ...
... pants on the man ...
... a pocket in the pants ...
... a nickel in the pocket ...
... a beaver on the nickel ... (Note: I just realized this line only works in Canada, where the five cent coin has a picture of a beaver on it.)
... a hair on the beaver ...
... a flea on the hair ...
... cells in the flea ...
... a prisoner in the cells ...
... pants on the prisoner ...
... a pocket in the pants ...
etc.
I prefer a slightly shorter version which goes from "a pocket in the pants" to "a dime in the pocket", then "a sailboat on the dime" (which again only works in Canada), and back to "a man in the sailboat". JoeNotCharles (talk) 15:14, 29 July 2015 (UTC)
I thought everyone (American) knew the song (needs music notation) "There's a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea?" One version finally ends with "There's a germ on the flea on the hair on the speck on the spot on the wart on the frog on the bump on the log in the hole in the bottom of the sea." But kids make up all sorts of variations. Or they used to. Taibhse (talk) 10:00, 30 July 2015 (UTC)
There's also 108.162.215.30 20:28, 29 July 2015 (UTC)
Yon Yonson - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yon_Yonson

Note that the recursion doesn't necessary be infinite. The list of travelers who met each other can have fixed length, for example 10. Imagining that the list is infinite is the joke. -- Hkmaly (talk) 10:06, 29 July 2015 (UTC)

I think that might be the point actually, the idea is that with each time someone tells the poem to someone else, it grows by one, for each traveler from an antique land has been told by by a different traveler from an antique land108.162.219.39 01:08, 30 July 2015 (UTC)

Should we mention quines, which occur when lists like this end after two iterations, as "Yo, I'm MC Quine and I'm here to say/'Yo, I'm MC Quine and I'm here to say'!" -- FourViolas (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

That's not exactly a quine - a quine is a set of instructions which, when followed, recreates the instructions. If you take MC Quine's quote and write it out, you get just, "Yo, I'm MC Quine and I'm here to say", which doesn't contain the second repetition. To be a quine, you need to find some way that taking just the quoted part will automatically expand to the full statement plus the quote.
A closer example of a quine: "Q: Pete and Re-Pete were sitting on a bridge. Pete fell off. Who was left? A: Repeat." If you take the answer "repeat" as an instruction, you would repeat the joke, recreating it completely. JoeNotCharles (talk) 15:19, 29 July 2015 (UTC)

This reminds me of Theodor Storm's "Schimmelreiter" ("The Rider on the White Horse") which descends through three nested levels of narrators before it comes to the real story. --ulm (talk) 13:56, 29 July 2015 (UTC)

One connection between recursion and Ozymandias is the phrase "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" aka "Who watches the watchmen?" and the character in The Watchmen named Ozymandias. 108.162.221.51 14:42, 29 July 2015 (UTC)

Nested Shelleys? Maybe associaing Shelley with shells could be part of the joke? 108.162.216.115 16:02, 29 July 2015 (UTC)

I keep trying to see 10, but I keep counting 11 syllables in each line with the exception of the last one. 108.162.210.210 16:48, 29 July 2015 (UTC)

You have to read traveler as trav'ler. Uptonc (talk) 16:57, 29 July 2015 (UTC)
Well, that's just wrong... 108.162.216.81 17:14, 29 July 2015 (UTC)
Um... No it's not. There are two ways to pronounce it (trav-uh-ler and trav-ler), kind of like toe-may-toe, toe-mah-toe. 108.162.219.196 18:11, 29 July 2015 (UTC)
And you can pronounce "dog" as "cat". Language is funny like that. 108.162.210.187 15:24, 30 July 2015 (UTC)
Ok it's going to bug me otherwise, but, how? I mean, I figure it's probably one of those ghoti-fish things, but still. -Pennpenn
Sorry it took so long to see your response and to respond to it. I meant that the symbols that make up "dog" are arbitrary, and could just as easily be pronounced as anything. Language itself is arbitrary and new words are made all the time, and pronunciations of old words are changing as well. Rules of grammar change constantly, to the ire of English teachers everywhere. 108.162.210.205 19:18, 26 September 2015 (UTC)

108.162.250.162 23:07, 30 July 2015 (UTC)

There's certain British accents (and probably elsewhere, but let's start here as an example) where a person saying a word such as "film" can only seem to say it as if it is "fillum". A kind-of-1.5-syllable-at-most word for most people (close to the word "firm", but the tongue used differently), but distinctly two for others (who can say their "L"s, but 'disengage', rather than let the word flow). (Actually, there's also accents that would make "firm" sound like "firrum", because of their 'harder' "R"s, but that's superfluous to this explanation.) So if you have a problem getting "Traveller" down to the two-syllable "Travler", you may have a similar sort of acquired pronunciation. See also "vehicle" ("vee-hic-al", "vere-cal"), which I know is predominant in certain of the US states. 141.101.98.188 06:14, 1 August 2015 (UTC)

I think everyone's looking far too hard for something obscure and clever. :) Ozymandias is in the poem described as the "king of kings", which makes him recursively kingly. Hence, the recursion joke. (I went ahead added that to the explanation, it's my first contribution here so hopefully I didn't bypass any explainxkcd wiki house rules) Orinthe (talk) 06:24, 30 July 2015 (UTC)

When my brother and I were very young, and stayed overnight at my grandparents, my grandfather would often tell us the following bedtime story, with great seriousness, and many dramatic pauses:

"We were all seated around the camp fire, when the Captain said, to his faithful servant: 'Antonio, Antonio, tell unto us a story.' And Antonio began: "We were all seated around the camp fire, when the Captain said, to his faithful servant: 'Antonio, Antonio, tell unto us a story.' And Antonio began: "We were all seated around the camp fire, when the Captain said, to his faithful servant: 'Antonio, Antonio, tell unto us a story...

There is a old Chinese story with recursion like this that goes like:

```从前有座山 Once upon a time, there was a mountain.

....```

162.158.255.59 07:00, 31 July 2015 (UTC)

Not that you need another example of recursion, but this brings back very distinct personal memories. Whilst my father actually used to read books to me, at bedtimes, on occasion (for whatever unfathomable reason, lost on the mists of time) he would sometimes tell me a freestyle story that started "Once upon a time, there was a little boy who said to his daddy 'Daddy, tell me a story!', and his daddy said, alright then. 'Once upon a time, there was a little boy who said to his daddy "Daddy, tell me a story!", and his daddy said, alright then. "Once upon a time, there was a little boy who said to his daddy 'Daddy, tell me a story!', and his daddy said, alright then. ..."'" But by that point (if not earlier, depending on how grumpy I was) I'd usually interupt him, so I suppose I never actually did find out what where this was might have been going. (And he forever asserted it was going somewhere.) 141.101.98.188 06:14, 1 August 2015 (UTC)

This comic's TOO META. 108.162.210.135 21:23, 2 August 2015 (UTC)

In response to "You're/That's/This is crazy: "Crazy!? I was crazy once. They took me to a room and locked me up. There were rats in that room that gnawed at the walls. The rats drove me crazy! Crazy!? I was crazy once ... " and so on...108.162.221.91 20:40, 1 September 2015 (UTC) Kickasstimus

The B in "Benoit B Mandelbrot" stands for "Benoit B Mandelbrot." Also I think Randall got the idea from this SMBC: http://www.smbc-comics.com/?id=2470 Which is incidentally based off of the aforementioned joke. International Space Station (talk) 04:58, 7 October 2015 (UTC)

Not quite sure what the proper protocol is, but it feels like the comment/suggestion at the end of the first paragraph should be in this discussion box rather than making the article itself more confusing to read. --Aid1043 (talk) 19:18, 8 March 2021 (UTC)

Agreed; moved it below:
This comment shows a misunderstanding of the phrase "king of kings." It refers to a king who rules over other kings; what is today known as an emperor.
162.158.122.84 22:31, 3 June 2020 (UTC)
Yfmcpxpj (talk) 01:17, 19 March 2021 (UTC)

Not a member or anything, just wanted to say that reading all these stories that people wamted to share brought me great joy, it's lovely when people share things they liked or otherwise found interesting with each-other. Thank you all, from the depths of my heart.