A Poem for Sunday
Ozymandias is one of Shelley’s best known sonnets and was actually written in competition with his friend Horace Smith, who wrote a very good (although inferior) sonnet on the same topic. Ozymandias is another name for Ramses the Great and it’s surprising just how often this topic- ruins as reminders of the evanescence of human empires- arises in nineteenth century writing on Egypt and the Levant. I can think of at least a dozen poems and travel narratives that touch on the topic, many of them claiming it as ancient wisdom much like Shelley. Among the French Romantics, seemingly nobody was able to travel to Egypt (or Greece) without reflecting on ruins and the fate of empires; a trend started by C.-F. Volney, who wrote a whole book on the topic, (“Les Ruines”, naturally) most likely to get on the good side of the Revolutionary Convention that had him in prison at the time, but very openly directed at the leaders of Europe. Dire warnings for current rulers are always on the surface in this particular genre.
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.
-Percy Bysshe Shelley