It was as a high school sophomore, in 1960, that I first encountered “Ozymandias,” a sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822).
In the first line of the 14-line poem, Shelley tells the reader that he has “met a traveler from an antique land.” The remainder of the poem is in the traveler’s voice or, indirectly, in the voice of the ancient tyrant Ozymandias, possibly a reference to Ramses II, the Egyptian pharaoh portrayed in the biblical book of Exodus.
The traveler speaks of “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone” standing in the desert. “Near them, on the sand/Half sunk, a shattered visage lies” with a “frown/And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command .…
“And on the pedestal these words appear: ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:/Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ ”
The traveler looks upon the utter brokenness of “that colossal wreck” and notes that “The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Though only 15 years old, I got the message: In the end, we all die. Rich or poor, mighty or invisible, every single one of us is born with a one-way ticket to oblivion.
One of the multiple ironies of this poem, written in 1817, is that Shelly was in his mid-20s when he composed “Ozymandias,” and he died at the age of 29, drowning in a storm off the coast of Italy when his yacht sank.
On one level, “Ozymandias” is clearly a political poem; it was written a year or two after Napoleon had met his Waterloo, on June 18, 1815, and at the dawn of the British Empire, which would be a dominant force in the world for generations to come. Shelley’s visceral hatred of all forms of empire, with their implicit threat of unfettered tyranny, made him persona non grata in much of his native Great Britain.
But, on another level, the undeniable fact of our mortality makes a mockery of Ozymandias’ pretentious boasting, carved into the base of his monument, crumbling into the sands of time: ‘‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” The “sneer of cold command,” long vanished, along with the remainder of his rotted flesh, is yet preserved in a lifeless distortion of the tyrant’s egoism.
Ozymandias, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler .… Where are they now? And what about the would-be tyrants of today, alive and well, on six of our planet’s seven continents? What compels so many of our politicians today – in fascist states as well as, alas, in our democracies – to lust for power at any cost?
Are they blind to their own mortality? Or, on a deeper level, perhaps it is their own fear of death, their unvoiced terror of the onset of nothingness, that fuels their insatiable craving for self-importance regardless of the consequences for others.
As for us Americans, let us be grateful for our few Abraham Lincolns, who somehow manage to develop the spiritual courage to take nourishment from our collective past and build hope for our collective future.
While much of the power of “Ozymandias” derives from Shelley’s dismantling of our world’s tyrants – past, present, and future – I would argue that the poem, despite Shelley’s deep-seated atheism, carries profoundly religious overtones; for the sonnet poses that overwhelming, needs-to-be-asked and impossible-to-answer question: What does it mean to be born to die?
I would suggest that this question, whether we shun religious answers or choose to embrace them, haunts each and every one of us, as we grapple with the significance of our earthbound lives, in which “boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at email@example.com.