Ozymandias – Percy Shelley’s Advice on Pandemics, Race Wars and the Arrow of Time

You could be forgiven for thinking these unprecedented times would provide even the most unimaginative person something to write about. But not me, despite race wars, and existential pandemics I’m writing about a poem. And like that, 95% of my readers  disappeared. The truth is that I’ve been unable to make sense out of the chaos. I’ve been unable to find a perspective that could either offer comfort, or justify somebody spending their time reading what I have to say. I’ve been waiting for a way of contextualising this event. And after two months I’ll make my contribution to these interesting times.
As a rule I’m not a big fan of poetry. Its proclivity for self indulgent wallowing, its use of abstract symbolism and imagery. And that it nearly always focuses on the topics of love, unrequited love, and existential angst. But when I do find a poem I like, I often find it to be profound. Ozymandias came to mind as a poem that can help us to make sense of these transformative times.
I’m going to give some backstory to the poem, I do this as it helps to establish the context in which the text was written, but it also helps me to look like I might know something of what I’m talking about.
Ozymandias is a sonnet, I studied it each year with my grade twelve high-school students. Written by Percy Byshee Shelley, in 1818, (Shelley, expelled from Oxford University for having published an essay titled, The Necessity of Atheism. The essay printed in the coastal town of Worthing, in 1811. Having spent two years living in Worthing I find this to be unbelievable. I was unaware that people Worthing could read. The fact that they were responsible for printing an essay written by one of the greatest authors of the second wave of the Romantic poets, blows my mind. That’s just lost me all my Worthing readers.
Shelley was an atheist at a time when such ideas actually meant something. A time when such having such a belief got him expelled from the University of Oxford. Today’s academic atheists commercially capitalise on peddling their godless, freethinking, common sense to impressionable students as though it were all their own idea, when in truth it was people like Shelley who paved the way. Unlike Richard Dawkins, Shelley suffered for his ideas. Whilst Dawkins has amassed a wealth estimated at $10 million for essentially repeating the same message, just using things like biology, evolution and evidence based reasons. If Shelley were alive today he’d be kicking himself, or more likely he’d be kicking Dawkins. I rather suspect that he’d struggle coming to terms with the fact that he died almost penniless, but would go on to be studied extensively for the next two hundred years, while Professor Dawkins would go on to become a tenured professor at the university  which expelled him. I guess times, ideas and values change and looking for the hypocrisy in history is but a fool’s errand.
Expelled from Oxford, but making waves in the social circle of atheism, Shelley eloped with, Mary, the daughter of William Godwin, one of England’s most prominent eighteenth century atheists. Thus she became Mary Shelley, author of the greatest romantic Gothic novel, Frankenstein, A Modern Prometheus. The strong atheism of her father and husband appear through out the story.
Mary Shelley’s father is of interest as it is common knowledge that Godwin once had dined with Thomas Paine. One can only guess what they discussed, but can be sure that it was all Common Sense. In case you missed it, that was an absolutely brilliant literature joke with overtones on the American Revolution. Maybe some of this will come up in a pub quiz one day. You remember, the pub, back in the days when we would go outside, a place where people would socialise?)
So, what’s this got to do with COVID-19 you might be asking? And you should be asking this question by now. Being the inquisative reader I know you are, I’m sure you’re asking yourselff, what has a piece of early nineteenth century poetry got to do with a pandemic, and the brutal murder of a black man by the police? If you’re not asking this, then I really wouldn’t bother reading any further.
So here it is, with no further ado, or fanfare, because let’s face it, fanfares are prone to being anticlimatic when used in prose; Shelley’s Ozymandias:
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.
Did you enjoy that? Are you with me in its profundity? Do you appreciate the lens it provides us with, through which we can view our new world of hell?  Well for the sake of giving me something to write I’m going to have to assume that you don’t.
Without wasting time on such nonsense as the rhyme scheme, enjambments, and the differences between a Petrachan and English Sonnets, I’m  going to give it to you straight; Shelley’s Ozymandias is foreshadowing the collapse of the British Empire.
Now that might not seem like much today, but at the time it was profound idea. The British Empire of Shelley’s time resembled the Empire from Star Wars, and makes the United States of today look like a less cute, more obese version of the Ewoks. Suggesting to people the imminent collapse of the British Empire would’ve been met with the sort of derision reserved for those who said there wasn’t a god.
But does Shelley go even further? Some think that he is being more philosophical about the nature of existence itself. All things change, all things must come to an end come to an end. Shelley’s decision to use Ozymandias as a symbol of impermanence is done for a paradoxical effect. Ozymandias is the name the Greeks gave to the pharaoh, Ramses II. Ozy, meaning air, and mandias, from the word mandate, meaning to rule, thus ruler of the air we breathe. That’s power. Shelley uses the juxtaposition of great power and collapse  to demonstarate that everything gives way to the passage of time. As those Christians say, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. That might have helped me keep some Christians reading.
It’s from Shelley’s choice of symbolism that we can apply some meaning to today’s chaos. Shelley was something of an iconoclast, strong enough in his atheistic convictions to lose his place at Oxford, it isn’t surprising that he held reservations on the validity of monarchy. Shelley moved in the sorts of social circles that affected how societies were being run. On one known of occasion his father in law when kept the company of Thomas Paine. If you’re not sure, Thomas Paine was a very influential dude regarding America gaining independence from Great Britain.
Shelley’s sonnet falls into one of a triumvirate of interpretations. Taken at its most literal it talks of a collapsed statue that symbolises the passing Eygpt’s greatest pharaoh, and the end of the Egyptian Empire
Losing the colonies coupled with domestic instability led King George III to be known as the Mad King
Losing the colonies coupled with domestic instability led King George III to be known as the Mad King
There’s good reason to interpret the sonnet as a satirical effort to ridicule the reigning monarch, King George III, whose empire was humiliated after losing the colonies just years before Percy Shelley’s birth. Indeed the losing of the colonies was interpreted by some as the beginning of the end of the British Empire. Something that shelley symbolically parallels with the fall of Ozymandias’s statue.
History suggests that Shelley kept the company of, or those who were the associates of people that were instrumental in securing the colonies their liberty. The greatest suspicion of this rests with how well Shelley, and Thomas Paine were acquainted. Paine wrote the influential pamphlet Common Sense, advocating the thirteen original colonies declare independence from Great Britain. Paine published Common Sense in 1776. Paine met Shelley’s father in law at a dinner in 1791, although it is said they thought little of one another, their mixing in the same social circles can’t be ignored.
Shelley eloped with Godwin’s sixteen year old daughter in 1814. It’s not unreasonable to infer that Shelley wasn’t in favour with Godwin, and that perhaps their differences included their respective opinions of the monarchy. It is interesting to note however, that Shelley was an admirer of both the works of Thomas Paine, and Mary Wollstonecraft, Godwin’s wife, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Mary Wollstencraft would have been his mother in law, but died giving birth to Mary. This is all supposition, but the association of Paine, Godwin, and Shelley,  at the very least derives intrigue insofar as the influence they had during their lifetimes and their legacies after them.
Three lines standout as possibly drawing attention to Shelley’s cynicism of King George III:
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:
As the sculptor is a statue’s creator, so is Shelley the creator of this sonnet. These lines suggest that the inevitable immortality of King Ramses II is outlived by the artist’s creation. Is it possible Shelley is making the same allusion to King George III?
The use of the word mocked is of particular interest because of its dual meaning. Mocked could mean to make, or create the sculpture, or to mock can be interpreted as the artist making fun of their muse. But the possibility chance of Shelley not having deliberately chosen ing this word is ridiculous.
imagesFinally it’s reasonable to view this sonnet through the lens of Shelley’s atheism. There is one line in the sonnet that screams that Shelley may well have been refering to his belief in the inevitable collapse of Christianity. Line ten: ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: is where Shelley’s most notably mocks Christianity and Jesus. Numerous times the Bible refers to Jesus as, “Lord of Lords”, but inn the Bible’s final book of Revelation 19:16 reads:
And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.
The similarities between these two lines are too obvious to be worthy of drawing comparisons, but they are a clear reference about how Shelley perceived the Christian faith as being comparable to a powerful ruler which will ultimately collapse and be forgotten.
So, What Shelley Is Saying to Us Today?
These three interpretations of Shelley’s sonnet are pretty much the standard fare regurgitated by English teachers in classrooms throughout the United Kingdom and North America. And they’re perfectly acceptable, but what makes a work of art immortal is if it can transcend time, and Ozymandias is perhaps the most apropos example of this. Just as Shelley’s wife’s book, Frankenstein, A Modern Prometheus is a cautionary tale of  unfettered scientific progress, Ozymandias is a cautionary tale of the imperative and inevitable collapse of things. Be they great things on the macro scale such as kings, countries, empires, law and order, economies, philosophies, down to our most micro unit, ourselves. Change is always happening, nothing escapes the clutches of time. The Greek, Egyptian, and Roman Empires lasted for far greater periods than the United States hegemony. Empires and all that comes with them, sooner or later come to an end. 
The public reaction to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of those responsible for upholding the law, is shaking the foundations of the country, and so it should. In a land where all are born equal, there shouldn’t be a need to repeat the cry of, Patrick Henry:
“Give me liberty, or give me death!”
Many of us are wondering what will be left of our society after COVID-19, and the murder of George Floyd?  But, keep in mind that a more pertinent question might be  not what’s going to collapse, but what’s likely to be left standing?