Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley. A poem about the transience of human endeavour
"Ozymandias" can teach us a lot
During my teenage years I attended a secondary school in Ireland. And in between the usual schoolboy antics of disrespecting the teachers and copying homework, (or in some cases, if you were clever enough, selling completed homework to your less bright fellows for cigarettes); I actually managed to learn a few things. There were two courses that I really managed to enjoy. One was History and the other was English and I have maintained a passion for both throughout my life. We actually learned real history in those days, dates and all. There was none of this watered-down humanities rubbish that is foisted on school kids nowadays. History was the story of great people and great events. It stirred my imagination and really gave me an appreciation of how the world came to be the place it was.
The teaching of English was approached in the same manner. We studied the prose of Dr Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke. I still like to think that my writing is occasionally influenced by the style of genius that could put “A Letter to Lord Chesterfield”or “Reflections on the Revolution in France" onto 18th century paper. The poems we learned about were equally inspirational. The works of William Butler Yeats and TS Eliot, among others, made a deep impression on me. The first lines of the “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” can still creak into the forefront of my memory without any great effort.
But I don't wish to write about TS Eliot today and Willie Yeats must wait for another time as well. The poem I would like to draw your attention to is “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley. The best way to start really is by quoting the entire work. It's only a sonnet, so it won't take too long for you to read.
“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:
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.”
Recently, the world has been transfixed by the spectacle of the London Olympics. Athletes from over 200 countries gathered to compete in order to win Gold, Silver or Bronze medals. Some of them were very successful and their efforts will give them justified fame in the generations that stretch into the future. The world has been lavish in its praise of the great spectacle of the games and the splendour of the new magnificent stadia, which were built to accommodate them.
Last week we took a day or two from praising the athletes, to marvel at the wonders revealed by the probe sent to Mars. The technology that created it and the stupendous intelligence of the team of scientists involved will stand for a monument to the great capacities of humanity in the twenty first century. In the months to come two individuals will be doing battle to see which one of them will become President of the United States. The terms “most powerful man in the world” and “leader of the free world” will be on everyone's lips for a while. I'm not sure which one of the candidates will be successful, but I'm guessing that they each think they are incredibly important people. The winner can expect to have thousands of people cheering at his inauguration. When he retires, biographies will be written about him and his statue may adorn public squares as relieving stations for future generations of pigeons.
Ozymandias was a very important person also in his day. When Shelley wrote the poem, he was referring to King Ramses II of Egypt. He also produced great works and he was talked about by many generations after him. But the stark image of the poem is, of the trunkless legs standing in the desert, with the half buried head of the great King fighting a losing battle with the drifting sands.
The contrast with the boastful words inscribed on the plinth couldn't be greater.
“And on the pedestal, these words appear:
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Perhaps the time has come to inscribe this poem on the front of every great structure that is produced by the hand of man. Maybe it should be hanging, in large frames, in the offices of all our leaders. Should “Ozymandias” be learned by heart by each and every one of us?
“Lay not up to yourselves treasures on earth: where the rust, and moth consume, and where thieves break through and steal.
But lay up to yourselves treasures in heaven: where neither the rust nor moth doth consume, and where thieves do not break through, nor steal.”
Is this a picture of Ozymandias?
Perhaps this is Ozymandias? Not the cat, of course.
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