Student Spotlight: Essay on "Ozymandias," by Nathaniel

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The poem “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley was written in 1817, as a statue of Ramesses II was en route to London for display in the British Museum. The poem was written as a reflection on the similarities of the Egyptian civilization to the British Empire. In the poem, the narrator meets a traveler from Egypt who tells him of a broken statue in the middle of the desert. The statue bears an inscription that reads, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” He expresses such disdain for the achievement of men that one would almost think that from a nihilistic viewpoint he advocates despair, yet his theme is actually consistent with the teachings of the Bible concerning human achievement. One side of the statement shows the pride of humanity, but the other side shows the end of all endeavors on Earth. The only thing missing is the alternative: “The grass withers and the flower fades away, but the word of our God endures forever.” (Isaiah 40:8)

One aspect of the statement shows great pride. Ozymandias, the Egyptian king, commissioned a statue of himself to stand in the heart of his empire, and for the base, an inscription showing arrogance and cruelty. “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” Despair he says, for he was the greatest king ever to rule, and none may even hope to come close to approaching his greatness. As the original inscription put it, “If anyone should like to know my grandeur and reach of stature, let him surpass any of my achievements.” At the time the statue was commissioned, the lesser mighty would despair, for it was obvious what great works the king had accomplished.

Here, however, Shelley makes expert use of situational and verbal irony, for with the next thought one remembers the true, current state of the statue. The sculpture is broken, and it lies not at the heart of a mighty empire but in the wastes of a vast desert. “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” Despair, for they are now nothing but dust, and so will be your greatest accomplishments on Earth after your death. His poem shows situational irony as the traveler finds himself perceiving the incongruity of a broken statue, abandoned in the desert, declaring the greatness of the surrounding works. He further uses verbal irony in the inscription on the base of the statue. The inscription does not match reality and may be taken to mean the opposite of what Ozymandias intended. It gives a sense of delusion, and one begins to despair of both aspects, both of achieving such greatness that would validate such an inscription, and also of making any lasting difference in the world, if it all turns to dust eventually.

Solomon expresses a similar viewpoint in Ecclesiastes. According to the Bible, he was the wisest man who ever lived. In Ecclesiastes 2:11 he writes, “Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun.” Notice he does not state the vanity of all human effort, only the activities which his hands had done. His father David expressed similar sentiments in Psalm 89:47: “Remember how fleeting is my life. For what futility you have created all humanity!” Solomon had reached a point of despair in his life, coincidental with his abandonment of God and His teaching.

The New Testament is also full of commentary on the fleeting nature of worldly achievement, but the writers after Christ offer an alternative to the despair of Solomon, who even in times of faith was under the old law. In Luke 12:15, Jesus said “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” Paul writing to Timothy returns to the topic several times. In 1 Timothy 4:8, he writes, “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” In 1 Timothy 6:4-7, he adds, “[The evil man] is proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings, perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds, and destitude of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness: from such withdraw thyself. But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.” What a contrast to the writing of Solomon. Though he had overseen the greatest time of prosperity in the history of the nation of Israel, how little it meant to Solomon when compared with the everlasting treasure of God!

Ozymandias and Shelley were both correct if they advocated despair to anyone who could only find worth in the works of their hands on Earth. However, the teachings of Christ and his apostles provide an alternative to the pride of humanity. The great men of the Bible have one thing in common, and that is their faith in God alone. “For the grass withers, and the flower fades away, but the word of God endures forever!” (Isaiah 4:8)

Nathaniel is a homeschooled senior, preparing to enter college to study mechanical engineering next fall. His favorite school subjects are Calculus and Greek. He’s a folk musician who performs at small venues locally, and he is also part of his church’s worship band (playing electric guitar, keys, and occasionally banjo, when the opportunity arises). Nathaniel is also involved in Civil Air Patrol. For further socialization he works part-time at a taco shack.

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