Great political poems (No1) – Ozymandias

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

About matthewashton

I'm a Politics Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. I specialise in the fields of American, British and media politics.
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14 Responses to Great political poems (No1) – Ozymandias

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Great political poems (No1) – Ozymandias | Dr Matthew Ashton's Politics Blog --

  2. thank you for this post; it was my paper on Ozymandias (written when I was 13) that first called attention to my poetic instincts–after all these years, still a milestone. RT

  3. Doctordrink says:

    Excellent poem, and well chosen – The Masque of Anarchy is the more obvious choice, so glad to see this one instead.
    How about Wordsworth’s Toussaint – from before he fell in love with monarchy and Daffodils?

    • I’m thinking of doing Walt Whitman next but I might try and do some of Wordsworths more radical, earlier poetry first. The trouble is that poetry is probably one of my biggest weakspots in my knowledge (well that and sport).

  4. Here’s a distincly American political poem “Bad Indians” by Ryan Red Corn.
    Ever read Steven J. Ortiz or John Trudell?

    • Oops, my ‘bad’–Simon J. Ortiz.

      • I’ve not read either but I’d be first to admit that my knowledge of poetry is one of my weakest areas. I’m currently trying to rectify that at the moment by expanding my reading. Apart from Robert Frost and Walt Whitman I knao whardly anything about American poets so any recommendations you can give me here would be greatly appreciated.

      • Well I will be interested to see what you find of interest in Whitman who was seriously influenced by his experiences as a doctor during the Civil War. There is a blistering rendition of Ryan Red Corn’s “Bad Indians” on youtube. Question is what sort of ‘political’ poetry are you after and what audience? New Yorkers? Harpers? Or the Mother Jones attitude crew? Perhaps American Folk music offers the most regarding protest music/poetry/songwriting. What territory are you wanting to wander into for exploration?

      • I’ve bought a copy of Leaves of Grass so will be reading it over the Christmas holidays. I’m afraid the only Whitman poem I know well is “O Captain, my captain”. I do know some Gil Scott Heron and as I said Robert frost but otherwise my knwoledge of American poetry is just about nil. coudl you recommend a decent reader or collection?

      • Sorry, since as a general rule I read volumes by particular poets rather collections or readers I can’t come up with a decent collection of political poetry via direct reading experience. One of your academic peers in the literature department possibly be of more help for ‘colllections’.

  5. Serious query–anyone on your side of the pond catch any news coverage of the Dec. 16 Peace Protest at the White House conducted by the Veterans for Peace and other groups? At least 131 people arrested, several high profile like Dr. Margaret Flowers and Ellesberg–and virtually NO news coverage here in the states. I am not joking–it’s like a black hole swallowed the entire story. So–am truly wondering if you heard even a squeak about it “there.” Thanks.

    • I’ve not heard anythign about it but I was in Berlin all of last week (hence the lack of postings on my blog) and my access to the media was pretty much limited to reduced versions of the Guardian and the not very good Sky News. I’m certainly going to look it up now though as it seems strange that it wasn’t reported. You’d think with 131 people being arrested it would be the major news story of the day. As I teach media politics I’m always interested in examples or the mass media collectively deciding not to “touch” a particular story. I’m thinking of possibly writing something about how they come to that decision and the mechanics of it.

      • Your expressed interest is why I decided to inquire if you had seen any news coverage of the Dec. 16, DC protest by the Vets. Seemed like something you would give some attention. I’ve asked contacts from the east to the west coast and no one saw any coverage on the major television networks at all–ABC, NBC, CBS. I did find coverage online by–get this–a Chinese outlet! Since the 16th there have been online postings by the groups involved and mention on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! but otherwise it’s like a black hole. If you didn’t know the protest was going to happen then you wouldn’t know to look for coverage of it. Then I did come across Real News coverage–which is a decent summation on site at Lafayette Park at the time. Contacts in other countries also are confirming a lack of main coverage. It’s like the protest fell into a media black hole–which I think raises all sorts of red flags akin to canaries in mines regarding the state of our media. Do please share any tidbits you might discover. Thanks.

  6. Pingback: Great political poems (No7) The Lost Leader | Dr Matthew Ashton's Politics Blog

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