Statue of Ramesses II at the British Museum
Everything changes. Nothing lasts. Oceans advance. Cities sink. Empires crumble.
Ideas survive. Every ideology, every philosophical movement in currency today has existed throughout history, even as the early civilizations they arose from vanished below the dust of time.
Ideas become a part of our mental DNA, transmitted from one generation to the next. Like biological DNA, these ideas mutate. The ideas that best fit their times spread and those that don’t either change or risk dying out. Like DNA, ideas don’t always go extinct, they can evolve to meet the needs of new environments.
Ozymandias was a Greek name for Pharaoh Rameses II who reigned from 1279-1213 BCE. He was probably the Pharaoh referred to in the Passover celebration.
The British Museum had recently acquired a fragment of a giant statue of Ramses II, weighing about 7 and a quarter tons. The
the complete statue would have been 57 feet tall. It was almost certainly the inspiration for the poem by Shelley, even though it didn’t arrive in London until 1821.
Shelley and a friend, Horace Smith, were in a competition to see who could write the better poem on the subject. Shelley’s work was published on January 11, 1818, Horace Smith’s on February 1st.
Percy Bysshe Shelley‘s “Ozymandias”
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.
Horace Smith’s “Ozymandias”
In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:—
“I am great OZYMANDIAS,” saith the stone,
“The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
The wonders of my hand.”— The City’s gone,—
Naught but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
We wonder,—and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
Shelley’s work is more abstract, a contemplation of the impermanence of even the greatest of rulers and works of man. There is no specificity. You would not know if this had been thought up without reference to an actual location.
Smith’s version brings the message clearly home. It is a direct comparison of the British Empire to Egypt of the Pharaohs and a prediction that London may suffer the same fate. I can imagine it would have been less palatable to the Crown.
Because of Shelley’s fame as a poet, we only study his work in our English Lit. class. But who do you think won the contest?
Straight out of Ecclesiastes