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The Empire of Ozymandias

Stewart Ogilby
The BigEye Blog
February 5, 2009

A group of workers gathered with their families to picnic and to hear a speech. Working class trade unions were growing in strength in 1819 and the ruling class in England was terrified. Routed by the authorities, eleven members of the group were killed and another one hundred and fifty were injured.

A young English poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, was living in Italy when the news reached him. Enraged, he isolated himself in a small attic room and wrote a poem in five days. When completed, he sent it to a friend for publication. At that time, publication would have resulted in the imprisonment of both publisher and author. It wasn't published until nearly a decade after the poet's death.

The poem resonates with economic ideas unheard in public until years later. It has been called the finest poem of political protest ever written in our language. Gandhi quoted it in India. During the Tiananmen Square uprising the final verses of its ninety-two stanzas were translated and chanted by students in Beijing, China --

And that slaughter to the nation
Shall steam up like inspiration,
Eloquent, oracular;
A volcano heard afar.

And these words shall then become
Like oppression's thundered doom,
Ringing through each heart and brain
Heard again, again, again --

Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you.
Ye are many. They are few.

Our American Revolution and the words of Thomas Jefferson terrified the ancien régime. After the blood of Parisian aristocrats had run in ditches dug for that purpose in the Place de la Concorde and critical works such as Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France had appeared, many educated and thinking persons who formerly harbored revolutionary thoughts launched a period of counter-revolution.

Shelley, if read at all in today's public schools, is known for Ode to the West Wind and Ozymandias. The latter work recounts a ruler's hubris and the fate of empire.

Somewhere in man's psyche there must lie a solution between risking le terror and the social injustices of l'ancien régime. History teaches us the inevitability of the death of empires. If there exists a way to prevent the growth of empire, then there is no need to concern ourselves with preventing the death of empire.

Empire is a creature of those few who are driven to exercise power, financially and militarily, over others. How can the many, whose makeup does not oblige them to seek power over others thwart the machinations of the few who seek such power and lust after more? We have the answer! In his personal papers containing a 1798 draft of The Kentucky Resolutions Thomas Jefferson wrote, ...in questions of power then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the constitution....

Shelley's father-in-law, William Godwin, was revolutionary in espousing free love. However, when his sixteen year old daughter ran off with Shelley and they returned to England he refused to speak to her. Revolutionary ideas too close to home may spark counter revolutionary tendencies.

Shelley was, in many ways, a thoroughly modern man. His revolutionary poem, The Mask of Anarchy has a very modern ring to it.

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