Today’s Poetry Sunday features one of the classics of Western literature, written by one of its greatest and most fearlessly freethinking poets. Percy Bysshe Shelley was born in 1792 and wrote at the zenith of the English Romantic period. In 1811, while enrolled at Oxford, Shelley and his fellow student T.J. Hogg published a pamphlet titled The Necessity of Atheism (a title that’s given much inspiration to others). This was a major scandal, and when Shelley refused to recant, he was expelled. Two years later, he included an expanded version of the tract as an introduction to his long poem Queen Mab. Another of his works was titled “Refutation of Deism”.
Today’s poem is said to have come about as the result of a bet between Shelley and his friend Horace Smith, who both wrote on the same topic (Smith’s poem did not stand the test of time as well). The narrator tells of meeting with a traveler from the “antique land” of Egypt, who witnessed the ruin of a colossal monument raised to a long-dead ruler. (The ruler in question was a real person: “Ozymandias” is an alternate transliteration of the name of Ramesses the Great, one of the most powerful pharaohs of the Egyptian New Kingdom era. His mortuary temple, the Ramesseum, may have been the inspiration for this poem.) In sparse, haunting imagery, Shelley memorably conveys the inexorable grinding of time and the foolish hubris of those who seek to outlast it. The implicit conclusion is that every empire, no matter the heights of greatness it attains, ultimately falls into ruin and obscurity and becomes nothing more than shadowy memories and scattered remnants of the past.
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.
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