There are many ways to view and understand our world. Science provides theories, psychology exposes human nature, philosophy assesses reality, religion shapes faith, and literature offers insight. Poetry shines light into the dark recesses of our lives, revealing essential truths about us and to us.
Poetry inspires me; it is one way I experience and understand the world. Poetry’s highly charged words make the speeding bullet of my life slow down so that I can enjoy the best parts of living.
One of my favorite poems is the sonnet “Ozymandias” that Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in 1818, when Egyptian archaeology was in its infancy. Ozymandias is the Greek name for Ramses II, arguably one of the greatest Egyptian Pharaohs. Ramses II erected magnificent statues of himself to ensure his immortality. The text of Shelley’s sonnet follows:
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.”
This poem does a lot of work. Its dancing words distill life down to its essence; and, in fourteen lines, it yields a dense architecture of meaning.
What are the meanings in Shelley’s poem? First, there is the message about the decay of empires over time. Ozymandias represents despotism and tyranny. The crumbling, ancient statue underscores the fact that power and glory are brief—they do not last; even though the “shattered” face of Ozymandias, with his “sneer of cold command,” his “wrinkled lip,” and his “frown” survived through the millennia, the great Egyptian Pharaoh no longer commands anyone.
Second, the poem is about the fleeting nature of life, fame, and fortune. “Ozymandias” shows the ephemerality of our existence and what survives, what fades, and what vanishes.
Through the poem I sense the endless desert; where sand reaches in all directions around “that colossal wreck, boundless and bare.” The word “boundless” in the poem describes time—it has no bounds. The poem also shows that every person is subject to time. In the case of Ozymandias, the passing of time took its toll on him and his kingdom, leaving a crumbling, lifeless statue drenched in silence, gripped by parching heat, and surrounded by somber swirling sands. Everything is gone. Gone. The sculptor who made the statue is gone, Ozymandias is gone, and the traveler seeing the ruins is gone. Shelley’s poem pushes me to consider what is left, and what is not; what is important, and what is not. The sobering thought of the fate we all share—death, decay, and ultimately ceasing to exist, looms large.
Poetry teaches. It brings ideas and understanding. It delivers discovery. It crafts beauty despite the chaotic landscape on which life plays out. And through “Ozymandias” I concede the time-bound nature of humanity—knowing that at one point I will disappear from the Earth and be forgotten—a stark reminder to live for what matters. Poetry is a pause in my hurried and hectic life—an oasis to find some measure of truth in my journey, even if only for a brief time in the swirling, shifting sands of life.