Percy Bysshe Shelley is a man whose personal life is probably better known than his work as an writer and political agitator. He died shortly before his thirtieth birthday, but his life is marked by almost unbelievable tragedy, mostly of his own making. Though his writing was often suppressed upon publication, and he never saw the height of his acclaim or success, his strident atheism, support for non-violent protest, disdain for the monarchy and even his vegetarianism inspired writers and political leaders for generations.
Shelley himself was concerned with giving power back to the exploited people of Europe, whether under the English monarchy or the French Republic terrorised by Napoleon, and if you follow that link and read “Song: To The Men Of England”, you might read what is probably his most famous poem, “Ozymandias”, in a changed light.
It is not just a poem concerning the fleetingness of man’s creation, but specifically that of the tyrants and oppressors of the world, which for Shelley was the institutions of crown and the church. The lines talking about the sculptor hint at the old writers’ trope that though the vainglorious king might die the one who recorded him will live forever, and almost two hundred years later, here we are. Politics aside, it’s a perfectly-formed sonnet, desolate and imaginatively provocative. Take it away, Percy!
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”.