Nothing Beside Remains: "Ozymandias" and Impermanence

In 1821, Percy Bysshe Shelley published a sonnet titled “Ozymandias” in London’s Examiner magazine. This meditation on earthly might and its transience was said to be inspired by the British Museum’s acquisition in 1818 of the “Younger Memnon” statue of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II, called Ozymandias in Greek. The poem has lasted now for almost two centuries, and is well on its way to achieving the seeming immortality it questions and subverts. It’s a work of art that offers a profound lesson to contemporary leaders: in the longest term, all power is ephemeral.

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,

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