I don’t really read poems but once in a while, I come across some lines that just keep ringing in my head without letting go. This one, Ozymandias (1818) by Percy Shelley (if the name rings familiar, his wife is Mary Shelley who wrote Frankenstein) was featured in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond who is a favorite author of mine.
In Collapse, Prof. Diamond examines the collapse of several societies both past and present, and how they made choices that led to their ruin. The book appropriately opens with Ozymandias:
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.
Ozymandias reminds us that of all the splendor and civilization we witness right now, only nature lives forever. The king Ozymandias once believed his kingdom would live forever, but all that is left is a single statue. Nature has outlived his kingdom and his memory. The poem tells the story about the fall of a great ruler, and shows us how to learn from the king’s downfall.
I won’t talk about the background history of the poem’s composition, and I won’t go into detailed literary analysis. Check the References section for this.
You can listen to an audio reading of the poem on Poetry Foundation.