Ozymandias

Headlines ring with fear today as a global flu pandemic threatens to wipe out substantial portions of human populace. Suddenly we feel a little frail. Whether or not our fears are realized, disease, unlike falling stock markets, forces us to face our fragility.

Ozymandias, written by Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1818, portrays the temporal nature of man and his achievements:

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

In its former glory the statue must have stood tall, impressive to all who saw it. But now the head lies half buried in the sand, a symbol of passing back into the dust like the emperor himself. The “sneer of cold command” declaring its dominance and pride are telling of the model, but also of the artist. We can yet admire the sculptor who, as Shelley points out, read his man well.

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.

Admired by the sculptor and feared by all, Ozymandias must have felt immense pride. His pride extended beyond his temporal and geographical limits to all rulers and authorities as he surely commissioned the accompanying inscription.

And on the pedestal these words appear:

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

It is perhaps a little ironic that the traveler would have felt no despair upon seeing the remnants of a bygone power. Superseded now by emerging empires armed with canon and musket, the ostentatious claim of Ozymandias would have seemed no small an exaggeration. However, some despair may have been warranted, as I think Shelley would have hoped for in the reader, as the demise of the terrible ruler may be extrapolated to suggest that all human achievement stands only for a limited time. Those very glorious empires would one day diminish in power. Shelley, who saw the rise and fall of the great Napoleon knew the frailty of human idols. Long after Shelley's death rust would eat at the machines of industry, the titanic would defy its pompous owners and sink, war would ravage Europe for decades and even the global pledge to exert a universal standard of human rights would be subject to decay as modernism gave way to everything post. The final stanza reflects Shelley's view that man's self-worship would be temporary:

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Civilizations come and go, but there is a power, a ruler, a king, whose visage is not shattered and who is supreme over all our feeble attempts at dominance. His rule is eternal, it is over all and not subject to the ravages of sandstorms and hurricanes. As Paul declares:

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15-17).

Shelley, who was expelled from Oxford for producing an anti-religious pamphlet, would have been irked to know that his poem would be used to aid the claims of a Christian. However, we both recognize the danger of making human idols. Whether gunned down on the battlefield, wiped out by a plague or left to obscurity, man can never be glorious for ever. Only Christ can sustain such a thing as glory.

If some microbe gets me, I will be annoyed. But I will have been under no illusion that mankind is supreme. As Jeremiah writes,

“Every Goldsmith is put to shame by his idols, For his molten images are deceitful, And there is no breath in them.They are worthless, a work of mockery In the time of their punishment they will perish” (Jer 51:17-18).

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