Ozymandias is one of British Romantism’s most enduring poems. Written by Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1817 and published the following year, it is a perfect sonnet. It accomplishes so much in only 14 lines. Lyrical, narrative, and dramatic all at once, with a complex rhyme scheme, it is a powerful indictment of Man’s ambition and hubris.
Here is the figure of a once-eternal authoritarianism, an Egyptian Pharaoh, his legacy buried in the changing sands, a monument to tyranny and to tyranny’s inevitable end.
Rilke thought of poems like art-objects not unsimilar to statues. They cast stories into forms we recognize, not bodies but ideas. Shelley cast his idea into a poem the same way that an artist sculpts their statue.
I’ve had the idea to do some variations on Shelley’s poem for awhile now. My first attempt was a sonnet about Mobutu, a former African dictator. But it struck me last night, after reading about Sam Bankman-Fried and the collapse of FTX, that the variations need not always be about dictators.
Ozymandias is not just a poem about a dictator and his monument. The poem itself is a monument to hope for those who toil under the ruinous consequences of zealous ambition. It is a testament to enduring the catastrophes that plague society when men and women succumb to their egos, when they play gods and lack wisdom. The indifference of Nature to Ozymandias’s proclamation inscribed on his pedestal, the “lone and level sands that stretch far away,” is not only a suggestion of the Pharaoh’s fruitless ends, but the hope that life for everyone else continues on long after the mad tyrant is gone.
I met a tourist from Nassau who said—
“One oversized blue-velvet beanbag lies
on the office rug, unused, that was his bed,
amid the clutter of startup supplies.
A sea of spinning chairs, and monitors,
six to a desk. Their walls of black screens,
hung with headsets, tell of what occurs
when the good is pursued by any means.
And behind the gatehouse of Albany
these words are typed out to his users
from the infinity pool on the balcony:
I fucked up, and should have done better.
Nothing beside remains to the losers
but the balmy Bahamian weather.”