More than a few people know the poem “Ozymandias,” written by Percy Bysshe Shelley, which in the days of my youth was part of the English curriculum, not only because Shelley wrote it, but because the poem was considered a parable about how fame and fortune vanish over time.

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.”

What fewer people know is that Shelley and his friend Horace Smith each wrote a poem on the same subject over the Christmas holidays in 1817, and both were published at different times. But where did they come up with the name Ozymandias? In antiquity, Ozymandias was a Greek name for the pharaoh Ramesses II (1279 –1213 BC), who definitely left a great deal of statuary behind.

Interestingly enough, the poem (or poems) convey stylistically an impression of the loneliness and singularity of such an occurrence, when, in fact, more than a few cities great in their time have totally vanished, with numerous references to their existence, but no present trace of their location. The latest issue of Archaeology contains an article on ten cities of the ancient world that have not yet been located, including Agade, the capitol of the Akkadian Empire; Tarhuntasha, the one-time capitol of the Hittite Empire; Serai, the capitol of the Golden Horde; and Wanggeom-seong, the capitol of Gojoseon, the first Korean kingdom.

In addition, almost every issue of Archaeology or Current World Archaeology seems to contain a reference to yet another empire or city (and not just small towns) recently discovered, one of the latest being an extensive urban area in Amazonia revealed by lidar scans.

In fact, one could even say that homo sapiens’ desire to be remembered is only matched by how much rubble we’ve left behind, with so few individuals actually memorialized and recalled over the ages.

8 thoughts on “Ozymandias”

  1. Bill says:

    I find it ironic that we have lost so much over time and that many people strive to make their mark on the world to no avail until recently. Now what half the world had for lunch is recorded and saved on the internet forever. But most people are lost in an avalanche of data. I wonder what people 200 years from now will have and say about our lives. I also wonder what objects will be so foreign to them that they think were our household gods.

    1. Hanneke says:

      I doubt stuff on the internet will be saved forever. Most of it will probably vanish, be deleted, be unrecoverable, within a generation or two. Digital storage needs constant, regular upkeep, from electricity and the hardware it’s stored on to the regularly needed upgrades and migrations of every single file in whole collections to newer protocols and programs. All that costs money. When companies can’t extract money from people, even indirectly, for hanging on to your great-grandma’s lunch pictures they won’t keep storing those.
      It’s going to be an archivist’s nightmare to have to keep on dealing with digitally stored historically important documents for hundreds of years. And future historians will have lots of trouble finding and reading the ‘electronic records’ of present-day important events.

      1. Bill says:

        I agree in principle but getting reminders about friends who have died from Facebook will always hit hard. Anything that is embarassing will be saved forever.
        But there is a site that keeps old internet items – https://help.archive.org/help/using-the-wayback-machine/#:~:text=Using%20the%20Internet%20Archive%20Wayback,date%20ranges%20for%20your%20search.
        The question is though what will survive and what won’t and how it is different from an archiological dig or a time capsule.

  2. KevinJ says:

    Nobody remembers who invented the wheel, fire, etc., because that was long before writing was invented. Oral tradition can only preserve so much.

    Now we’re in an age where reading and writing are on the wane, and more and more content is video. But video takes up so much more space, and is so format-sensitive (hello, VHS and Betamax both).

    Will we return to a time when so many accomplishments are lost like ancient inventors? I wonder.

  3. RRCRea says:

    Also Washashukani, the capital of the Mitanni Empire, but we MIGHT have found that one. Also, we may not know where Sumerian Kish was either… And it was REALLY important up through even Persian times… You weren’t really the ruler of Mesopotamia unless you could put “King of Kish” in your titulature.

  4. Tom says:

    Where oh where is the lost poetry?

    I hoped for poetry in Williamstown. Searched through The Record and Off The Record. Even thumbed The Literary Review, for “Ozymandias” like jewels. Nothing of the poet remains it seems, yet, I know his soul flowed on. Not as prose poetry but poetic prose.

  5. Daze says:

    I am the sort of person who still has all of my documents stored back to my first 1984 Mac. Recently I needed to look at one. I was kind of resigned to my 1980s WordPerfect files being unreadable, but found that even noughties MS Word files were returning ‘format not recognised’. If I could be arsed I guess I could recover the text from amongst the markups, but the result is not worth the effort. So, not for ever!

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      If you’re really determined, you can probably get an emulator for older OS’s and scrounge old versions of the software and word processor apps; and export or copy/paste into something that can be supported by a later version, until you get current.

      For example, WIkipedia says
      “SheepShaver is capable of running Mac OS 7.5.2 through 9.0.4 (though it needs the image of an Old World ROM to run Mac OS 8.1 or below)”

      Rarely worth it, though. Not that I haven’t done that sort of thing a time or two.

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