Desert Journeys 21
March 29th 2017
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.
One of the most famous poems featuring a traveller in the desert is the sonnet Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley.
The words engraved on the statue’s base, ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ are very powerful. Given that Ozymandias is reputed to have been an alternative name for Rameses II, arguably the most powerful ruler of the Egyptian Empire, it’s a line which can easily be taken at face value. Look at everything I have achieved, it seems to brag, and despair – because you’ll never be as great as me.
But there’s another interpretation of the ‘look on my works … and despair’ line, which the poem leads on to. The statue is fallen into ruin, its now-broken pieces submerged below the rising sands, turning to dust just as surely as the empire of Rameses II has withered and faded. Look on my empire, other mighty rulers, the poem warns, and despair that everything I ruled, and had, is now lost and buried beneath the sands of time. I even called myself King of Kings, and yet all I strove for and owned is now lost and forgotten.
‘All is vanity’, Ecclesiastes cautions, and in his poem about Rameses II and his crumbled statue (and, by implication, his empire), Shelley also reminds us that all those humans who would dare to call themselves king will one day be dust. Perhaps this can be seen as a Lenten prompt not to be too beguiled by our own importance, and instead to look at ourselves in the wider perspective of the kingdom of God.