Ozymandias on the Nightly News

The Karnak Temple Complex in Luxor, Egypt,
in which Ramses II is depicted as the god Osiris.
1981 (crg)

Watching the evening news recently, “Ozymandias” came to mind. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetic rendering of the transiency and impotence of inflated egolatry of the kings of ancient times speaks to the would be “kings” who dominate the 24/7 news cycle of our own time. I was thinking of one in particular, but there are many around the world who qualify.

So I looked up the poem in my good old Norton Anthology, whose footnotes explained that a first century B.C. Greek historian reported that the largest statue in Egypt had the inscription: “I am Ozymandias, king of kings; if anyone wishes to know what I am and where I lie, let him surpass me in some of my exploits.” The anthology explains, “Ozymandias was Ramses II of Egypt, 13th century B.C.”

Decades ago, when I visited Egypt as part of a religious studies class, it was pointed out to us that Ramses II had his name carved deep into the stone of structures he built so that a later Pharaoh could not scratch it out, which sometimes happened. In the poem below, the anthology further explains that “the hand that mocked” refers to the sculptor’s representation and derision of his subject, and “the heart that fed” refers to the king’s heart that served as the source of such mockery.


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.

“Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, / And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command” reminded me of the frown, wrinkled lip, and sneer of a cold and callous politician that I frequently see on the nightly news.

It also made me think of my recent reading of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, whose familiar story has been told in multiple productions: offering his soul, Dorian Gray’s portrait takes on all his sins and aging so he can remain unblemished, untouched, unmoved, and unreformed. Dorian keeps the painting covered and hidden in an unused, locked room. He occasionally checks on it, finding it uglier and more distorted with each viewing.

Dorian finally decides he needs to change his way of life and he does something he considers good and unselfish, hoping to reverse the process, but in the end,

He could see no change, save that in the eyes there was a look of cunning, and in the mouth the curved wrinkle of the hypocrite. … Had it been merely vanity that made him do this one good deed? Or the desire of a new sensation, as Lord Henry had hinted, with his mocking laugh? Or that passion to act a part that sometimes makes us do things finer than we are ourselves? Or, perhaps, all these?

Ozymandias could be said to practice the power of positive thinking, thinking of himself and his work in superlatives, but the sands of time are a great leveling field, Shelley makes clear.

Dorian Gray was above it all, privileged and pampered and proud, without good promise or purpose. Wilde’s implication is that conscience is necessary for the soul to survive.

“What does it profit a person if, in gaining the whole world, loses the soul?”

Visit Chris Glaser’s website here.

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