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What 'Ozymandias' Really Tells Us

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | November 10, 2014 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | November 10, 2014 |

The great sage and eminent football junkie Lord Castleton saw fit in his piece yesterday to use Shelley’s Ozymandias to highlight Belichick’s assassin genius. It’s a poem that surfaces again and again in the popular consciousness, this year breaking above the waves with its use in promos for the last few episodes of Breaking Bad. And of course just about everybody reads it or is required to memorize it for recitation sometime early in junior high or high school in America. It’s the Huckleberry Finn of sonnets in that by fifteen every American has been force fed it, mildly liked it, and got some surface meaning that they interpreted as depth.

Here’s the good poem for your perusal:

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, 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

If you dig this sort of thing, go read the wikipedia page for some interesting context, like the fact that there’s another poem of the same name by Horace Smith, since the two wrote their poems as a friendly competition with each other. Colloquially, we only remember Shelley’s though, metaphorical sands stretching away from his short stanza.

There have been two standard ways to read the poem. On the one hand, it’s a straightforward piece of irony and the way that time makes all men small things. That the greatest things we build crumble to dust, leaving only the boasts of the conqueror ringing hollow across the centuries. That’s the easy reading, the one that most teenagers come away with. And there’s nothing wrong with it: the poem works perfectly on that level.

On the other hand, there’s an interesting additional reading about colonialism and a riffing on the unreliable narrator. Note that the narrator doesn’t say that he saw any of these things, but that he met a traveler who tells him about it. Especially given the context of the poem’s writing, this is a nuanced and deeply snarky way to look at it. The poem was written as England was busy looting Egypt, and the poem itself inspired directly by a gigantic statue of Ramses II getting shipped to England for display, with a similar phrase to the famous “look on my works” carved upon it. From this perspective, the poem is not just revealing the irony, but mocking those who put it on display without seeing that it equally applies to them. Ha! Silly ancients thought they were so powerful, let us display the monument of their shortsightedness in our mighty capital that will surely last forever.

There’s a third way that I prefer, one that I’ve not heard echoed anywhere else, though it’s likely someone else has noticed it before. See, the way that the poem resonates to me is that of the modern completely missing the point of the ancient. Of different cultures speaking on such different terms that the words can translate with the meaning lost entirely. The modern person sees that statue, sees that claim, and assumes that once there were cities and farms and monuments to every horizon. That the statue is ironically telling you to gaze on his works, that have since disintegrated into dust.

But it’s not about the accomplishments. The wasteland is the accomplishment. The statue is standing vigil over exactly what its maker is proud of: destruction. He sneers at the mighty and tells them to despair not because he has built so much, but because he has destroyed everything they could possibly build.

We’ve forgotten that world of blood and darkness. And the very fact that we don’t see that, that we’re told it by someone who’s actually been there and we still miss the point, magnifies that. We live in a world where power is creation. That even those who destroy do so to build something else. We’ve lost all touch with the blood-dimmed tide, of the riders on the horizon that are only coming to burn the world down around us. There’s a comfort in that, in our softness, but there’s also a warning, because that desire and capacity for annihilation just for its own sake is not something that gets bred out of us. It erupts here and there, isolated detonations of mass shootings and villages burning in dim corners of the globe. The more we allow ourselves to think that nothing dwells in the darkness, the more able it is to creep out under cover of shadow.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.