Shelley’s Sonnet

graniteIn a bizarre piece of prophetic poetry, it seems Percy Shelley anticipated the recent discovery in Egypt of a giant statue. On March 9, 2017, archeologists uncovered large fragments of a quartzite bust which were initially thought to be an image of Ramses II. Further evaluation has led them to believe that it is actually an image of Psammetich I who ruled Egypt from 664 to 610 BC. According to the BBC, “We found the bust of the statue and the lower part of the head and now we removed the head and we found the crown and the right ear and a fragment of the right eye,” Khaled al-Anani, Egypt’s antiquities minister. To make the discovery even more compelling is that it was found deep under an area of Cairo described as a slum.

These unusual facts remind us of Shelley’s sonnet first published almost 200 years ago, in 1818.

“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.

headActually, that sonnet was written in competition with another poet, Horace Smith, who wrote another sonnet of the same name. These poems may have been prompted by a discovery in their own day of a statue of Ramses II.

The point of the sonnet is rather obvious, and the recent events seem to confirm their truth: men and women of prominence and power—as well as the empires they build—will fade away into oblivion. All their works and acclaim and prestige will not last. Everything they have done will be forgotten. Their fame will end up looking ridiculous.

While this may give us a bit of joy knowing that those in power and seeming greatness will one day be nothing but a pile of rocks in a slum, our own efforts—businesses, projects, influence, wealth, experiences—will also become a mist.

What then? Doesn’t this all sound familiar, even though our own culture fights against such truth tooth and nail?

Remember Ecclesiastes: “All is vanity and a striving after the wind” is the repeated chorus. And it’s true. One is tempted to dissolve into despair or hedonism, but Ecclesiastes does not end that way. Instead, the Teacher reminds us, “The end of matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”

That will not be forgotten.