amike's picture


    Does anyone teach Ozymandias any more?  No, silly, I don't mean this one

    I mean this one:

        I met a traveler 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 (1818)

    I encountered this sonnet perhaps 50 years ago, and while the exact words and rhymes haven't stuck with me-I don't think we were required to memorize it--the imagery of it pops into my head from time to times-frequently so when I think about Hubris.  I could to a lot of troping on Shelley's masterpiece, and I suspect that as people read the line wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command... some may apply it as I did a few days ago.  But that's not where I'm taking it.  My fixture is on the quotation "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: look on my works ye Mighty, and despair!And within that quotation I'm especially fixating on the word despair. 

    If Ozymandias truly said this the context certainly makes his intent clear-Ozymandias was playing King of the Hill from the top of the hill, and advising his competitors "don't even think of challenging me".  But it wasn't Ozymandias who put the lines in the sonnet:   Shelley did.  That understood, his "truth to power" becomes clear.  Shelley speaks to Napoleon and other tyrants of his age: "Look at what you accomplished, Napoleon, and despair there in exile on your tiny island".   But he's not suggesting that France despair, and here's a place to think of the relative power of culture and politics.  France survived Napoleon.  Previously, it had survived The Sun King.  It would survive two world wars in the future, and five constitutions in the years thereafter.  It survived loss of empire, and diminishing power on the stage of the world.  It survived, in fact, to gain the honor of producing the worst tourists in the world...and if that's not cultural power I don't know what is.  I hear Britain, which won the title as recently as 2002, is planning an all-out drive to win it back.

    Shelley's concluding image is bleak, and maybe bleaker than it has to be.  Most peoples have survived the fall from political supremacy quite well, thank you, though wounded pride isn't a malady to be considered lightly.  But I don't think Sweden wants to revert to the days of storming the gates of Moscow.  Swedes do much more sensible things provide universal health care and eat pickled herring, black rye bread and lutefisk, all washed down with glög and aquavit.

    And what will the our Ozmandian statue look like?  As long as gym socks and sneakers are universal, we won't be forgotten when our grandiose plans fail.

    So read Ozymandias, try reciting it with appropriate expressions and gestures.  Listen to it read.  It can be found all over the internet.  Six versions are available at Librivox..another wonderful website.

    I close with an irony to compete with the best of ironies.  Ben Kingsley reciting Ozymandias in a commercial produced over ten years ago.  Look at the tag line at the end and if the irony isn't blatant I may consider explaining it.



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