Colbert Report: Metaphor-Off

Last night, Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report hosted Sean Penn for the Metaphor-Off (see the video clip below), in which he and Penn went head-to-head in a battle of words. As usual, it was a funny (albeit highly scripted) event. Also, as usual, he had a high-profile judge, this time former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky. But what caught my attention (to my delight) was how Colbert allowed criticism of Bush to come through in creative ways.

The first metaphor topic was Dick Cheney. Here, as expected, Colbert offered his pro-Cheney metaphor, while Penn countered with his anti-Bush response. But it was Pinsky’s answer that was most illuminating. Most people probably had no idea what he was talking about, but any educated person should have picked up on his metaphor (the “correct” one, according to Pinsky). He said: “Dick Cheney is a shattered visage, half-sunk in the sand whose frown and wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command tell that its sculptor well those passions read.” For those who do not recognize these words, they come from the very famous poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias.” The full poem is as follows:
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.
What’s so interesting about Pinsky’s “answer” is that Ozymandias is another name for Ramesses II, the great and mighty Pharaoh. In other words, the metaphor (taken from Shelley) essentially identifies Vice-President Cheney as an ancient Egyptian dictator whose vanity and misguided interest in establishing an eternal legacy is repaid by history in the form of all such works turning into a “colossal wreck, boundless and bare.” It does not take much of an imagination to extrapolate from this that Pinsky’s statement suggests that Cheney as Ramesses has foolishly established the “mighty” and despair-inducing works of war, which will one day be revealed as a “colossal wreck.” And is it really going too far to suggest that the “lone and level sands” of Egypt might in fact be used here as a reference to the sands of Iraq?

Now whether or not the Colbert Report intends its audience to make these connections is beside the point; the fact of the matter is that these connections are there regardless of the intention (though I think it is safe to say that Colbert wanted people to draw these conclusions). As a literature major, I feel obligated to point out the remarkable complexity hidden within a show already full of subtle remarks and clandestine criticisms of our government. I applaud Stephen Colbert for another wonderful episode!


Brilliant indeed. Thanks for explaining Pinsky for me.
peter kline said…
David, thanks for the insightful commentary. Check out the below YouTube link for a rare look at an out-of-character Colbert.
Shane said…
Thanks for this david. I've always love shelley.
Deep Furrows said…
I liked Penn's quoting of Prufrock early on.
kim fabricius said…
Thanks for that, David. In the UK it is often said that "Americans don't do irony" - to which I always respond, "If you can say that, clearly Brits don't do intelligence."

For Bush and co. - staying in this "cruellest month" with TSE - try Part I of "The Hollow Men" (though in the fourth line from the end, feel free to add an "only" after the "not"!).
Halden said…
Also interesting is the fact that Ramesses II was the Pharoah who chisled the names of his forebears off of countless monuments and had his own inscribed over them, creating the illusion of vast imperal acomplishments that were nothing clost to reality. Can't say that's what Shelley has in view in Ozymandias, but it's interesting nonetheless.
Camassia said…
Is that the same Ramses that's in Exodus? That would make it even more interesting.