“I met a traveler from an antique land”, so begins the sonnet by P.B. Shelley penned almost two hundred years ago. In a few short lines that follow, “Oyzmandias” brutally underscores the inevitable decline of great kings and the powerful empires they build and the inconsequentiality of things in the “long term”.
In travels across some beautiful cities around the world, I have been struck by a universality of statues in public places: in parks, town squares or at busy intersections and sometimes in a sanctified enclosure of their own. We seem to have a penchant to implant a solid metal-cast reminder of notable people from times past. While those lionized are most often leaders of some kind – regal, spiritual or popular – occasionally they commemorate an artist or a scientist (someone who has impressed with intellect rather than strength). The statues remind us, generations later sometimes, not just who our forefathers were but how they shaped and defined the lands and times we have inherited.
We often think of events and actualities of our lives in simplistic time frames. Most decisions we agonize over turn out to be near term events with immediate and frankly somewhat unimpressive consequences. Only rarely do we pause to think of life in broader terms or our actions in the context of implications that pan out more than a few days or weeks. And yet even as I have gazed at the meticulously detailed structures of leaders past in imposing bronze, steel and copper, I cannot help but marvel how one person’s lifetime – no matter how impressive at the time – is nothing more than a speck in the journey of the cosmos.
Ambition, passion, power, service – even greed – are all forces that drive innovation and progress. Some may argue that human progress could not have accelerated as it did in the last two hundred years were it not for gargantuan advances largely fueled by ambition and passion. Yet, how much will actually matter a hundred years hence? Ozymandias reminds us how much: brilliantly, poignantly and with brutal honesty.
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.