Every chance I get, I read Ozymandias. I should clarify, though, because that makes it sound like all I do is read the same poem over and over again (in the shower, in lines at Burger King, or mowing the lawn)—that’s just not the case at all. Fall Out 4 recently came out, and my lovely-lady-scientist wife bought it for me as an birthday present. In between the soul-crushing bouts of non-stop homework, I play it endlessly. That is, of course when I’m not busy reading graphic novels for a book club I participate in every two weeks, and when I’m not playing with my puppy Huckleberry, or talking to friends over a weekly meeting I call “Coffee with Jammer” (I’m currently in talks with PBS about making it into a series) or when…you know, perhaps it’s better to be honest, and say whenever I stumble upon the poem, I take the time to read it.
I struggled over what to write for this month’s essay, and while at first I was tempted to discuss my personal feelings about Pride & Prejudice & Zombies (Spoiler: it’s a negative opinion, but not for the reason you probably think), I recognized that I would be doing a disservice to my previous English teachers as well as my regular readers if I did not take the time to write at some point about Ozymandias. Or, at the very least, my reflections on Ozymandias.
I’ll cite the whole poem before I move forward. I know you just read it because all you read is Romantic poetry and never Twilight even though you told yourself you were just buying it as a joke and you keep it in the bathroom and you read the first page and even though you know its malarkey and rubbish you keep reading and…anyway, the poem:
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,
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.”
My first thought whenever I read the poem is Rome—though that may be because I’m an American. For whatever reason, the Roman Empire haunts the creative and political imagination of Americans, and if you don’t believe me, look at the architecture of many of the monuments in Washington D.C. I suspect on some level, it’s a recognition of the parallels between the physical and political cultures. America is so big, our power seems endless, and the state of Texas alone can engulf Britain and still leave plenty of room for countries like Italy, Portugal, and Belgium combined. With all that in mind, and recognizing the way Americans have been involved in world affairs ever since the Second World War, the notion that our country, that hallmark of democratic virtue and liberty, is a kind of empire that spans the known world, exists in our consciousness creating a grandiosity that, apart from perhaps the British Empire (but I’ll get to that in a minute), only Rome could equal our power.
This consciousness, however, is plagued by paranoia, for as an Empire we recognize that there is a failing in us, something that makes us vulnerable to outside influence or internal corruption, and so “the idea that was Rome” becomes a trope in movies, historical fiction, and atrocious lines in hipster poetry slams.
Much can be divined about any individual however outwardly complex, from his or her explanation of the decline of the Roman Empire. (22).
Looking back to Ozy, the image that greets me when I see the ruined colossus is the head of Constantine or Julius Caesar. My identity as an American, as a member of the country that possesses the greatness and simultaneous mediocrity of Empire (tip my hat to Gore Vidal) makes me see these images first, and therein is revealed my Eurocentric outlook, for in fact it actually comes from Egypt.
Ozymandias is supposedly the Greek pronunciation for the name of Rameses II, a.k.a Rameses the great, a.k.a. that bald dude from The Prince of Egypt (if anyone still remembers that movie). Rameses II reigned as Pharaoh of Egypt extending it through military conquests down into the region of Nubia and north into the territories today recognized as the countries of Israel, Syria, and Jordan. Rameses’s kingdom stretched farther than any previous Egyptian leader and through the early period of his reign he dedicated his efforts to constructing monuments, temples, and cities. There does exist some speculation that it was this particular Rameses that reigned over the empire of Egypt while the Jewish people were held in slavery—thus giving rise to the career of Charlton Heston—though some historians and archeologists argue this is still up for debate. It was this Rameses, this Ozymandias, who would inspire Shelley’s poem.
The specific history is not important, however, for what ultimately matters is the idea of empire. Or, really, the ultimate failure of empire. On the surface, Ozymandias is a deceptively simple poem about how empires rise and fall, and the men who make them create dreams that, ultimately, are left to “decay.” That’s not to say this this interpretation is not useful for teachers of younger students of the poem, for that was the lesson I received in my sophomore year of high school when I was handed a fat packet of Romantic poetry and told to “get to it.” The poem does often serve as a platitude about how “nothing lasts forever,” but regardless that’s an important lesson to learn. Ultimately all of the decisions, actions, dreams, ambitions, and creations of man are a small drop in the vast eternity of time, whatever the hell that truly is, and Carl Sagan in his book Pale Blue Dot said it best:
Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam…
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The reader may be getting annoyed with the writer at this point, wondering when he’ll get to the point. Well dear reader, as always, if you were paying attention you might recognize that I’ve addressed the point already.
“Empire” is a creation of man as a reaction to the unforgiving ruthlessness of time. Men in their times attempt to build a self in the face of the sublime reality of death, as if conquering the planet and stamping their name and image across the earth shall somehow stop them from dying. Ozymandias the man constructed an “empire” desperate to overcome this ruthlessness, unaware, or unwilling, to acknowledge death and the effect it would have upon his Destiny. Those “trunkless legs of stone” that “stand in the desert” have been forever sealed upon my memory by teachers and every subsequent reading, and looking to Percy Shelley I find the context fascinating to observe.
Shelley was four years away from his death by the time his poem was written. It was composed as a competition between himself and a friend of his by name of Horace Smith who, and I’m ashamed and embarrassed to admit this, I had no working knowledge of until I wrote this essay, and to be honest I’m still not sure who he actually was. (Okay I Google Searched him, he wrote a book of Parodies of several noted poets at the time entitled Rejected Addresses: Or, The New Theatrum Poetarum…sounds like pretty cool dude, why haven’t I ever heard of him?). The contest between the two men was to see who could write the better sonnet.
As a side note, it’s tragic in my experience that, one, so many incoming English majors I know despise poetry, and two, that it took me until I was 26 to realize this poem was a sonnet.
The theme of Empire is something that rarely seems to emerge when talking about British Romantic poetry, or at least that is the case in my own experience. When the Victorians would come around only a few years after this poem, the notion of the British Empire would become something important, not only for politicians, but for artists as well. Shelley’s Ozymandias then seems a foreboding artistic bridge between these two literary periods: like Ozymandias who dreamed his name into eternity, like Rameses who tried to seal his name upon the surface time, like the Empire of Rome that sought to bring hope to mankind, like the British Empire bringing civilization to all races on earth, Shelley in his own time tried with his compatriots to build an empire of verse.
It’s easy to read the poem Ozymandias as a platitude for the ephemeral nature of human beings, just as it’s easy to say “things don’t last forever” not taking the time to process the weight of such a statement. Reading Ozymandias is an opportunity to remark truly on human nature. We believe the works we strive so valiantly and relentlessly to create will outlive us, yet poems like Ozymandias reminds us that, in the end, nothing will last. This is not meant to discourage but rather, as is often the case with Romantic verse, to marvel at the sublime qualities of life.
Nothing will last, and in fact mankind may very well disappear into the sands we tried to build our empires upon, but rather than look upon this as a tragedy, the reader of Ozymandias should recognize the larger implication. While mankind’s work will fade, existence will go on, and all those kings and empires that seemed so important will only have been a small grain of sand in the massive desert of space and time.
I’m ashamed to admit I do not actually possess a copy Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, so I cannot give you the page number, however I was able to find a source online that held the original quote along with the image captured by the Voyager that he describes. Enjoy.
**Writer’s Second Note**
I’ve also found a clip of Carl Sagan reading this passage in full. Looking at this in relation to Ozymandias only further validates the notion that true poetry is everlasting and re-imagined every sub-sequent generation. Please enjoy, and, hopefully, be humbled: