“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.”
These are the last lines of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1818 poem, simply titled Ozymandias. Told through the testimony of “a traveler from an antique land,” the poem concerns Shelley’s ever-present fear of being forgotten; his legacy ground down by the sands of time until he only exists in far-off whispers and cryptic fossils. Shelley’s Ozymandias ironically became notorious, leaving a substantial mark on popular culture nearly 200 years after its author’s death. On the other hand, Ho
race Smith’s Ozymandias, published 3 weeks after Shelley’s as part of a competition between friends, was much less successful, being relegated to obscurity today. Somewhat fittingly, despite being much less influential than Shelley’s, Smith’s Ozymandias remains one of his most well known works; a substantial portion of the author’s legacy stemming from his association with his more successful friend.
Another of Shelley’s works, the lyrical drama Prometheus Unbound, was based on a trilogy by the Greek tragedian Aeschylus, of which only one play survives. Our only information about the other two stems from the various praises and descriptions of his successors, the manuscripts of his work having burned in the fires of the last 2500 years. Similarly to Ozymandias, Aeschylus was incredibly influential during his time, yet his Prometheia trilogy only survives to this day through the congratulatory whispers of playwrights lucky enough to avoid the razor of time, a fact that Shelley surely came upon while writing his own work, and one which likely influenced his tale of gradual demise.
If, as Shelley proposes, founding a legacy is ultimately futile, what’s the point of creating, of putting in an effort to express yourself despite the overbearing erosion of history? One possible answer is that influence is relative; while Ozymandias’
direct legacy is lost to time, his influence still exists through the actions of all who beheld him, the proverbial Ozymandiases becoming the Caesars and Napoleons that follow in their footsteps. Similarly, although Aeschylus’ Prometheia trilogy remains undiscovered, it still survives through its influence on the works of Sophocles and Euripides, and through their influence on Roman playwrights and their influence on Elizabethan playwrights and so on into contemporary writing. Another answer is that it doesn’t matter whether an artist maintains a legacy, that true artistic achievement comes not from one’s impact on others but rather from personal advancement and self expression. And even though Percy Shelley, despite his notoriety, was ultimately overshadowed by his more successful wife, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, their association doesn’t negate the importance of his works, just as Horace Smith’s association with his more successful friend doesn’t negate his own personal achievements.
The last lines of Smith’s Ozymandias are as follows:
“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 fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.”
Although he may have become relatively obscure in the course of modern history, and just as the Shelleys may become relatively obscure in the centuries to follow, Smith makes one thing clear – at the end of the day, it won’t have mattered in the first place.