All Empires eventually go into decline. This has always been one of the great historical truths, but it’s amazing how often it’s forgotten. Every Empire in history always thinks that it’s the one that’s going to buck the trend and last forever. Shelley’s poem, ‘Ozymandias’ is about this hubris, using the example of the ancient Babylonian and Egyptian dynesties.
A traveller finds the remains of a huge statue in the desert. A plaque at the base of the statue informs him that it is of a king named Ozymandias and commands the reader to, ”Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair”. The irony is of course that it’s all gone, ground to sand by time and the desert winds. It was Shelley’s way of saying that nothing lasts forever.
The poem caused a big upset in some quarters when it was published in 1818 because it was seen as a direct attack on the British Empire, which, with the battle of Waterloo and the ending of the Napoleanic Empire, was effectively top dog at the time. The British Empire appeared to be at it’s zenith and it seemed unthinkable to those at the time that it could ever end. Of course the seeds of it’s own destruction had already been planted and less than a hundred years later it was in slow economic decline. In a hundred and fifty years it was effectively over, replaced by the American Empire. How long this will last is anyone’s guess.
Here is the poem in full:
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 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