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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Ozymandias

I suspect most of us read Shelley’s Ozymandias at some point in High School or perhaps later in college. It is a favorite of English teachers –one of Shelley’s more accessible poems and one that most adolescents can relate to even if they find the Romantics a world apart from their own reality. Even the dimmest of bulbs in our small class of eleventh graders managed to glean the simple message though, “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.”


But the lesson of “that colossal wreck” was all that most took away. Only a few managed to understand that hubris attends most human endeavors. In the context of our present struggles, it is a reminder of the impermanence of our achievements as well as a litmus test we should apply to those who seek authority. You see, some who aspire to leadership do not bear the “wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command” by which we can recognize their thirst for power. The modern politician’s guise is more cunning. He peddles dogma, prejudice, and division even as he claims the moral high ground. It isn’t that hard to see through his façade it’s only difficult when he says what we may secretly wish to hear.


The sad truth is that no latter-day despot rose to power without the willing support of those who sympathized with his message, and the reluctance of the rest of us to oppose him. The bright lines that once burned so clear when our country was young have grown dim in our present darkness. Daily assaults on human dignity, the freedoms of person and the rights of individuals to live as they choose within the embrace of our laws and conventions have brought us to a place of conflict from which we retreat at our great peril.


It is of little comfort to know that the present circumstance shall pass, and our present Ozymandias will one day lie as shattered as his precursors. The real price we will pay is the further loss of our humanity. Another retreat from the promise of a nobler, better future for our children and our race. Perhaps we are tired of the fight. It is clear when we look at the last election that the idealism of our past burned most brightly in the current generation. Age appears to have softened our outrage, taken the sharp edge of discernment from our eyes. Will our legacy be worth claiming, or will it all be “boundless and bare”?


It is in my view a time when we should be as Shakespeare’s Henry, when we should “stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, Disguise fair nature with hard favored rage” lest we sheath our swords for lack of argument. I am not yet too wasted to take up this fight, not yet prepared to cede our future to a poor imitation of a failed past. If we will not stand for our children, for whom will we fall?

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