Transience, Destruction, and Other Pick-Me-Uppers in "Ozymandias&…
“Ozymandias,” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, is a poem about the “colossal wreck” left over from what used to be a fantastic empire. In the middle of a desert – we’re talking sand, sun, and then more sand – are the shattered stone legs and head of what probably used to be a pretty impressive statue of Rameses II (or “Ozymandias” in Greek, which just sounds way cooler). The inscription at the base reads, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Which makes us giggle, since everything around the statue is totally empty for what looks like a 50-mile radius. (SOME – one – LOST – his – EMMMM – PIRE!!!)
Adding to the overall feeling of solitude is the fact that the poem is told in the past tense (which adds chronological distance) by an unnamed stranger (which adds narrative distance) about a faraway place (which adds good ol’ fashioned regular distance). Can you hear the echo? Though we’re tempted to scoff at Ozy and his delusions of grandeur, what we humblingly realize as we sit in our pajamas eating generic-brand cereal is that hey, this guy had a nation! Aside from a carbon footprint, how am I ever supposed to make my mark on the world? (A plot to change the lettering on the Trump Tower quickly develops…)
Now that you’ve been thrown into a crippling existential funk (which would make a great band name, by the way), let’s think about the end of a more recent age, like the Roaring Twenties in an economically-booming America. Any literary works come to mind? Probably The Great Gatsby, which, as you’ll notice, also happens to be told retrospectively in the third person about a faraway place – socio-economically speaking. There’s that echo again. Like Ozymandias, Gatsby is determined to unprotected to greatness – though in his case, it’s because he’s magnetically drawn to a mysterious “single green light, minute and far away.” Aliens? The 7-11?? An industrial-strength insect zapper?!? Probably just the light from East Egg, the really posh part of Long Island where his disgustingly wealthy and utterly unattainable high-school sweetheart lives.
While Gatsby’s aim is not to build an actual empire, he might in addition have, considering the amount of trouble he ends up going by: he denies his family, changes his name, spends years working underground as a bootlegger, amasses a fortune, assumes a new identity, buys a huge mansion in an expensive neighborhood, and then proceeds to squander his complete life savings on lavish parties for entitled – how do we put this? – morons, ALL to impress an old high-school fling who isn’t especially nice to begin with. (And you thought finding your photo in someone else’s locker crossed a line.) Unfortunately for Gatsby, the money runs out, the girlfriend bails out, the husband finds out, and Gatsby, well, Gatsby gets shot. The end! Kind of.
Much like Ozymandias’s shattered monument, Gatsby symbolically leaves a part of himself behind in that eerie green light streaming out over the bay, and while this remnant does little justice to what he once was, it nevertheless underscores the emptiness of the surrounding moral wasteland. Go suck an egg, East Egg!