Shelley’s poem is about the fallen statue of the leader of a nation. “Ozymandias” was the Greek name for Pharaoh Rameses II, thought by some scholars to be the Pharaoh who enslaved the Israelites, prior to their exodus from Egypt. For today’s readers, a certain Donald J. Trump may also come to mind.
This national leader is a king, but he doesn’t see himself as any old king. On the pedestal of his statue, he declares himself “king of kings”. There has never been, nor will there ever be, any other king, anywhere, even close to being as great as he is! On top of the pedestal are “two legs of stone” which, as befits a king of kings, are suitably “vast”, but there’s no torso! It’s in the torso that the heart is found – in his case, the “heart that fed” his arrogant superiority, and contemptuous bullying. His heart was “cold”, detached, wrapped up in himself, and lacking any empathy with, or even basic consideration for, anyone else. Just as he was heartless in life, so he’s ‘heartless’ in death.
In life his two legs supported nothing of worth, nor do they now – just empty space. Time has buried his head in the sand, just as it was in his life. That head is “shattered” but, we can still see the “frown, and wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command”, of the man who intimidated, bullied, denounced, diminished, slandered, insulted and sought to destroy anyone who refused to fall at his feet in sycophantic deference and compliance. He elevated himself by putting down others.
At the height of his power, his statue would have gazed upon his doubtless vast and resplendent capital city beyond which, the real estate he owned and dominated, could well have stretched as far as the eyes could see. Now, however, “nothing beside remains.” (I have a vision of Trump Towers crumbling, and golf-courses being reclaimed by Mother Nature.) All that any eyes can now see, are “lone and level sands” which, “boundless and bare”, “stretch far away”. The only thing that can now be viewed as “colossal” is the wreckage, not only of his statue, but of all his totally self-centred dreams and demands, ambitions and conquests, and of his self-imagined legacy.
He failed to see the skill of the “sculptor” who “mocked” his contemptible characteristics, while seeming to ‘glorify’ them in his art. He also failed to see the inevitability of the ravages wrought by the passage of Time, and the power of Nature. He’d imagined that continuing to see his gargantuan and glorious ‘achievements’, all other “mighty” kings would “despair” at their inability to rival his. In a final irony, however, the aspiring “mighty” will, rather, “despair” at seeing the inevitable ruin, and ultimate annihilation, of even kingly status, wealth and power. The ‘barrenness’ of that “colossal wreck” is what all inevitably comes to in the end.
The one thing that has best withstood the destructive centuries, is Art. The remains of the sculptor’s art can even yet convey his rightly mocking intent. The words on the pedestal have now gained in irony. Shelley’s poem will keep the whole sorry tale in our memory for as long as there are human beings to read it. Perhaps it will all still come to an end – in another ‘Big Bang’, or maybe a ‘Slow Death’ as “boundless and bare, the lone and level ” lightyears “stretch far away” – but, thankfully, for the present, that needn’t overly trouble you and I.