‘I am great OZYMANDIAS,’ saith the stone,
‘The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
The wonders of my hand.’—The City’s gone,—
Naught but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
We’re all going to die. Eventually, given the steady march of time, the record of our lives will be preserved as but the faintest of inscriptions on a natural landscape that has mercilessly reclaimed its dust. This inescapable truth sits at the center of Horace Smith’s haunting 1818 sonnet, “Ozymandias”. Smith’s work, the lesser fêted twin to Romanticist icon Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet of the same name, both the fruits of a friendly literary competition between the two, draws out especially well the bitter irony of earthly achievement. All that Rameses II (‘Ozymandias’ being his Hellenized name) had ruled over, the boast of his greatness, was gone. What, then, did his kingdom matter?
Modern American political discourse suggests that we have no cogent answer to that question. Consumed with the pedantry of the academy, with its atomistic and subjectively constructed systems of ethics in tow, our institutions seem hell-bent on avoiding the hard, though productive, truths that attend this life. With inflation running rampant, war in Europe, increased rates of violent crime, and an ever-widening tear in the social fabric of our country, many in Washington are concerned with posturing to a frenetically entertained electorate, hoping to further consolidate their hold on political power. All for what? To continue to perpetuate the three-ring circus that is our morally confused governmental machine.
We forget that Ozymandias is dead. Such forgetting is made all the easier by the fact that, as was inevitably the case, we’re hard pressed to find any remains of his once majestic kingdom. Its obsolescence means that we aren’t confronted with the harsh reality that this side of Eden, our every breath moves us closer to the last one we’ll ever take. This oblivion, at a high point these days, has facilitated the socio-political sphere’s descent into an increasingly antagonizing project of destruction that is so consumed with eradicating the achievements of Western civilization that it has ignored entirely a prospective construction of its replacement. What is more, captive as our society now is to utter subjectivity—the height of individual freedom apparently—we have no consistent, common touchstone, or purpose, to sufficiently direct the course of American law and policy.
Where is our hope? As strange as it sounds, our hope is in the recognition of our finitude. Our mortality. Remembering that the ‘king of kings’, Ozymandias himself, died, and we will too. Indeed, how can we live in any responsible way if we’ve forgotten that we’ll die? Shorn of its transcendentalist self-absorption, Thoreau’s concern to “live deliberately” to avoid the death-bed discovery that he “had not lived”, echoes this reality. More to the point, the Psalmist says in Psalm 89, “Remember how short my time is! For what vanity you have created all the children of man! What man can live and never see death?” Behind the veil of our imperfections here on earth, we’re tempted to think the here and the now is the always and the forever.
But, like biblical types, this life points to something greater. Therefore, in the common grace of natural revelation, we have a desire for something more permanent, something more perfect. That desire, however, when overcome by the corruption of our natures, often seeks its fulfillment away from its true eternal realm, in the fading promises of earthly gain. It teases the creation of a secular Elysian Plain, built on chimeric notions of justice, peace, and equity, only to be revealed a mirage of this dying world.
Cast properly though, in the shadow of death, the desire for permanence and perfection reminds us of our mortality and leads us to consider what that might mean for how we conduct our temporal lives. For Moses, in Psalm 90, that question recognizes the glory of God, the sinfulness of man, and the inevitability of having to give account to our Creator for our actions. Hence, verse 12: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom”. Remember your impending death and live accordingly. This was certainly the example set by the Marian martyr, John Bradford, as he filled his final days in a dreary English cell, the religious and political prisoner of the Queen. Despite his almost certain death, and the discomfort of his imprisonment, Bradford’s many personal letters encouraged his persecuted friends on the outside to eschew the things of this world, and to “fear not prison, loss of goods or life. Fear rather the loss of those goods which last forever; fear rather the loss of the life which is eternal”. Here was a person who lived fully, and fully only in light of death. We’re in desperate need of a political discourse that accounts for mortality. We need authorities that recognize they will inherit Ozymandias’ death, not only his secular power. What impact might that have on our political institutions? Our legal system? We might see a switch from the methods of Doyle’s Holmes to Chesterton’s Father Brown, from the merely how, to the how and why. Perish the thought that our politics deserve the prophet Isaiah’s censure: “Behold, they are all a delusion; their works are nothing”. For this we know, like the lost wolf hunter in the last lines of Smith’s poem, someone someday will gaze on our ruins and ponder, “What powerful but unrecorded race Once dwelt in that annihilated place”.
Jonathan Baddley is a Ph.D. candidate in Reformation history at Vanderbilt University. He previously earned an M.T.S. in the history of Christianity from Harvard University and a J.D. from George Washington University. He is currently writing a biography of the Marian martyr John Bradford.