Ozymandias was problematic

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.”


With the recent uproar over statues, I’m now beginning to wonder who Ozymandias was? We he an Egyptian Pharaoh? Was he an Assyrian or a Persian? Maybe he was my distant ancestor Genghis Khan?

And was Percy Shelley really making a timeless statement about the way the passing of time destroys the memory of great men? Or was he just another white Englishman rejoicing in the “erasure” of ancient cultures not Greek or Roman?

I’m going to have to rate this poem as “problematic,” especially if Ozymandias was a person of color.

7 thoughts on “Ozymandias was problematic”

  1. The American Spectator, June 30, 2020.

    Ozymandias Laughs: A Minnesotan today knows despair.

  2. Considering Shelley’s record as a political radical and atheist, I think strange that you should attribute him such unpleasant motivations.
    ( For all it matters, he would later write a lengthy boring poem “the revolt of Islam” which was the oppressed people of the Ottoman Empire making a successful revolution in the full French model, but being crushed shortly after by the united European armies and navies’ guns )

    Although the ruins of Persepolis and other such discoveries had already been made, the ‘colossus’ statue was a strictly Egyptian artifact so Ozzy must have been a pharaoh.

    Also, one month afterward another poet – one Horace Smith – published his own Ozymandias. There was no Internet at the time otherwise there would have been an infectious Ozymandias meme.

    In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
    Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
    The only shadow that the Desert knows: –
    “I am great OZYMANDIAS”, saith the stone,
    “The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
    “The wonders of my hand.” – The City’s gone, –
    Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
    The site of this forgotten Babylon.

    We wonder, – and some Hunter may express
    Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
    Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
    He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess
    What powerful but unrecorded race
    Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

    — Horace Smith

    Then again, the feeling “all empires pass, and so shall ours” was far from alien to the British of that time ( for instance it appears in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall ). It only disappeared through the combination of Victorian self-righteousness and Industrial revolution.

    1. Yes. I looked it up. Ozymandias is Greek for “Ramses.”

      I’m actually making a joke about Shelley, trying to see him the way a Twitter leftist would see him.

    2. MIchael Parenti has some interesting stuff about Edward Gibbon here The part where he talks about how the Romans underdeveloped Egypt and turned it into a granary is fascinating. If you read between the lines it also helps explain how the Arabs were able to mount two (ultimately unsuccessful) sieges of Constantinople in the 7th and 8th centuries. The original Muslims had no ships. They were a desert people. But Egyptian Christians helped them build their navy.

  3. That should be the first instance of the standard colonialist trick – turn the colony into a producer of raw materials exclusively and destroy its manufactures so it will have to buy manufactured items from you.

    ( It’s interesting how everywhere invaders carved themselves a permanent establishment around one or more seaport, they recruited a fleet easily – Goths on the Black Sea, Vandals at Carthage, Arabs in Egypt… )

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