Ramesses II, also known as Ramesses the Great, left more than two vast and trunkless legs of stone behind. Plenty of statues of the pharoah stand in the desert…or in museums. The great temple of Abu Simbel was his doing.
Still, you can see the force and truth of Shelley’s point in his great sonnet Ozymandias. The mighty empires of ancient Egypt, like so many others, have all decayed into mere momuments in the lone and level sands, half sunk. It’s a fate that befalls all empires, all leaders. Even those of our own time will leave little but wrecks – colossal or otherwise – a point Shelley was surely making and aiming at the powers of his own age.
The formal beauty and the remarkable rhymes of Ozymandias (not always falling at the end of lines) give the poem its peculiar power, rather talismanic and monumental. It’s a poem I love to read out loud.
Talking of the visage of Ramesses II, time has also left us his mummy. I remember seeing a black-and-white picture of it as a child and being startled at being brought face to beaky face with this mighty ancient monarch…and human being.
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.