How many times have we read or heard the saying ‘Pride comes before a fall’? Doesn’t this cliché invariably fit the exit of a disgraced or dumped politician? The problem is that countless people suffer before that fall takes place. How often do politicians, especially of long-standing, ponder on the fleetingness of their power?
The last question recalls Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Ozymandias published just over 200 hundred years ago – a poem which speaks of the futility of pride.
Regarded as a bad boy defying anything connected with the Establishment, Shelley garnered little following in his short life. (He drowned in the Gulf of Spezia four weeks before turning 30). Fired by both his passionate temperament and the revolutionary times he lived in, Shelley called a spade a spade in his writings, though he covered his tail by leaving England to live outside the clutches of the British authorities. As the years rolled by, the influence of his lyricism, political and philosophical insight took root so that he is rightly regarded as a major Romantic poet.
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.
Inspired by Napoleon’s power-mongering and land grabbing mania as well as by Britain’s pillaging of Greek and Egyptian antiques to showcase them in its nascent museums, Shelley’s sonnet recounts the memory of having met a traveler “from an antique land” who describes the ruins of a statue in the desert in a way that leaves us in no doubt that the passage of time ravages even the biggest ego.
Rather the use of persona is a framing device that immediately conjures a dreamlike, eerie mystery.
Although the poem begins with ‘I’, the use of persona does not lead to an outpouring of expected emotion. Rather the use of persona is a framing device that immediately conjures a dreamlike, eerie mystery. This is the very same layered narrative technique, Shelley’s brilliant wife, Mary, exploited to write Frankenstein when she was still 20 years old. Furthermore, the framing device allows the traveler’s voice to create more distance between the reader and the “King of Kings”. In this way, Shelley is already hinting at how ultimately even the memory of the greatest and proudest is forgotten and that man is ultimately totally insignificant. That the traveler remains nameless and stateless renders him a universal figure – an apt detail to hammer home Shelley’s universal message.