On Sunday, I reread this classic poem of 1818 by Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Ozymandias’:
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”.
The theme of this poem — or, at least, its general sentiment — is the transitory nature of most human endeavour. You may think yourself a big man or woman in your time, but what are the chances that your memory will live on beyond the next generation?
Initially, I wanted to contest this poem. Ozymandias is no longer a nobody, no longer a cypher in the sand. He is Rameses II, one of the most powerful New Kingdom Pharaohs. His temples and his tomb are known. We know the stories of his reign. He is likely the Pharaoh of the biblical Exodus. Thanks to archaeology and historical linguistics, we can read the stories of Rameses and other powerful men lost in antiquity, whether through text or artefact.
Ozymandias has been rediscovered! Rameses shall live eternal in the memory of humanity!
As I was plotting out this post, however, another memory from Sunday came flooding in. On Sunday morning at church, a friend asked how my week had been. I mentioned the Charlemagne commemorative lecture. He said he did not know who Charlemagne was.
Charlemagne is a much bigger figure in the cultural memory of Europe than Ozymandias/Rameses II. He is much more recent. He is European. He did all sorts of stuff. Some European schoolchildren learn about him in their history classes. I have no doubt that he is an important part of First Millennium Studies.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean that Edinburgh accountants know who the man is.
And so we come full circle back to Shelley’s poem — the memories of the great are feeble and weak things, even when they have the infrastructure of Europe to help keep them alive.