A Poem for the Rich

In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:
“I am great OZYMANDIAS,” saith the stone,
“The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
“The wonders of my hand.” The City’s gone,
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.

We wonder, and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

—Horace Smith

Many of us that can afford an Internet connection still qualify as exceedingly rich compared to, for example, many poor people in Africa. On a scale of centuries, the ancient centers of civilization and wealth tend to collapse. Even Rome, with over a million inhabitants in its day of ancient prominence, shrank to only 20,000 over the course of history. Some other ancient cities no longer dot our maps.

It helps us, perhaps, to have some perspective. Those magnificent working monuments to wealth in New York, London, or Tokyo probably won’t be there 1000 years from now. What will?

3 thoughts on “A Poem for the Rich

  1. You may or may not know that this sonnet was written as part of a competition with Percy Shelley. Shelley wrote this less than a month earlier:

    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.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Yep, actually that poem is how I found out about the one I quoted. Ironically enough, I found out about Shelley’s version via a game: Civilization IV. It has Leonard Nimoy’s voice quoting “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” I was curious where it came from, found the Shelley version, and then the Smith one, which I preferred on that day.

    Reply

    gwern Reply:

    Interestingly, my own reaction was, ‘Ah yes, good old Shelley’s Ozymandias, how appropriate’ and then by the second verse, ‘this isn’t as good as I remember it, and when the heck did Shelley mention Babylon or London in it?’, and after a moment of confusion, I finally noticed the author.

    Reply

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