Ozymandias: Look on my Works

by Jack Slinkman

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.”

The Greeks viewed the human body as this perfect, precise, mathematical wonder. They also aspired to humanize their pantheon of gods. Their marble statues became the instrument of their worship. Roman emperors wanted to be worshiped like gods so they erected statues in their own likeness. In truth, statues speak of perfection and permanence, and thus misrepresent human beings in our imperfection and impermanence. When we obsess over our own image – which, if we’re being honest with ourselves, is quite often – we misunderstand who we fundamentally are. Adam and Eve were already like God, but for the same reason that we misunderstand what it means to be image bearers, we misunderstand the folly of statues. The poem “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley (figuratively and literally) documents the fallen nature of statue worship. Perhaps by identifying Ozymandias’ self-deception we might be able to identify our own self-deceptions. Maybe then we might understand the wisdom inherent to the second commandment: “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them” (Ex. 20:4-5 NIV).

Like a slab of marble waiting to be chiseled, “Ozymandias” is a dense block of text – 10 syllables wide by 14 lines long. Yet for all of its precision, the poem fails to align with itself. Sonnets are known for their tight structure, but this poem is bereft of a pleasing cadence. Line breaks interrupt sentences in unlikely places. As such, the poem’s shape suggests one thing, but the poem’s sentences suggest another. Form betrays meaning. The reader is left to sift through each line just as the “traveller” had to excavate “the lone and level sands” for the “half sunk” remains of Ozymandias’ once great statue (Shelley 1; 4; 14). What was originally intended to glorify its creator now mocks him. As with the kingdom, so with the statue; as with the statue, so with the poem. Form betrays meaning.

I see myself in this statue. I have been intentionally made – designed to glorify my Creator. But, ironically, so many of my efforts are pointed in the opposite direction. The metaphor runs much deeper – one way to think of ourselves is as God’s statues. In Near Eastern culture, statues were a political and military statement, a pin-drop on a map. A king would erect a statue in a public space to lay claim to a land. But God is not claiming one small territory – He created the whole map. Which is why God created living, breathing statues. Like statues, “we are made from the same stuff that’s all around us, yet we have this transcendence that is connected to this bigger picture and whoever is responsible for all of this” (Mackie 31:58-32:10). Embedded in every statue is a worldview statement, a claim about how the world came to be and who we are in relation to it. God already made the perfect imitation of himself which is why Ozymandias’ statue is a counter-narrative to the gospel, one which places the man at the center of the story.

Inscribed on the pedestal of Ozymandias’ statue is the phrase: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings, Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” (Shelley 10-11). Though Ozymandias wants us to fear him, I only fear how closely I resemble the king. As with Ozymandias, I have been convinced that my career can shape my identity. I’m not an ancient Egyptian pharaoh so instead of meticulously sculpting statues, I obsess over the work that I produce. Everything I make contains within it a statement about who I am and why I matter. Like Ozymandias, my body of work holds infinite meaning – it provides status, security, comfort, and, most troublingly, identity. If it can be put this way, I am a matryoshka doll of sin – hidden beneath every statue of mine is a lie that is rooted in a lie that is rooted in a lie. So let’s core the forbidden fruit. Seeded within mankind’s first idol is the belief that God was withholding good things (that’s lie #1). The next assumption is that human beings could remedy this (lie #2). The final assumption is that a finite thing could hold infinite implications – for Adam and Eve it was the forbidden fruit, for Ozymandias it was a statue, and for myself it’s often something as simple as a work email (lie #3).

There are modern and Biblical adaptations of Ozymandias’ hubris. Inscribed on Michael Jordan’s 2,000 pound, 17-foot bronze statue is this bid for divinity: “The best there ever was. The best there ever will be.” In the statue (aptly named “The Spirit”), Michael Jordan transcends his mortal competition, his godlike talent vaulting him over two opponents who, themselves, are fading into obscurity. In 1 Samuel 15:12, Saul defeats the Amalekites, erects a monument in his own honor, and imprisons the Amalekite king. The rationale being: “if you capture the enemy king, well then now you are a king of kings” (Cho 48:22-48:28). Old Testament kings were dunking on competition and posterizing their success long before the modern NBA. The secret of the proud is that we are desperate to manufacture our own worth because, deep down, we are insecure in our identity (pride, ironically, is rooted in and compensating for shame). Thus pride turns our hearts into an idol factory. Whatever statues line the conveyor belt of our actions, know that these tiny statues reflect back more truth about who we are than whatever image we project back to ourselves in the mirror. So if we are to learn from the second commandment, we would do well to audit the things that we create. Do we really know the ends to which we labor? And if we are to draw up a moral from Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” we could do far worse than to arrive at this truth – hidden within the things that we create are our greatest hopes and our greatest fears, the things that we believe will bring us salvation and the things we believe will bring our demise.

10 Hear what the Lord says to you, O house of Israel. 2This is what the Lord says:

“Do not learn the ways of the nations

or be terrified by signs in the heavens,

though the nations are terrified by them.

3 For the practices of the peoples are worthless;

they cut a tree out of the forest,

and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel.

4 They adorn it with silver and gold;

they fasten it with hammer and nails

so it will not totter.

5 Like a scarecrow in a melon patch,

their idols cannot speak;

they must be carried

because they cannot walk.

Do not fear them;

they can do no harm

nor can they do any good.”

6 No one is like you, Lord;

you are great,

and your name is mighty in power.

7 Who should not revere you,

King of the nations?

This is your due.

Among all the wise men of the nations

and in all their kingdoms,

there is no one like you.

8 They are all senseless and foolish;

they are taught by worthless wooden idols.

9 Hammered silver is brought from Tarshish

and gold from Uphaz.

What the craftsman and goldsmith have made

is then dressed in blue and purple—

all made by skilled workers.

10 But the Lord is the true God;

he is the living God, the eternal King.

When he is angry, the earth trembles;

the nations cannot endure his wrath.

11 “Tell them this: ‘These gods, who did not make the heavens and the earth, will perish from the earth and from under the heavens.’”

12 But God made the earth by his power;

he founded the world by his wisdom

and stretched out the heavens by his understanding.

13 When he thunders, the waters in the heavens roar;

he makes clouds rise from the ends of the earth.

He sends lightning with the rain

and brings out the wind from his storehouses.

14 Everyone is senseless and without knowledge;

every goldsmith is shamed by his idols.

The images he makes are a fraud;

they have no breath in them.

15 They are worthless, the objects of mockery;

when their judgment comes, they will perish.

16 He who is the Portion of Jacob is not like these,

for he is the Maker of all things,

including Israel, the tribe of his inheritance—

the Lord Almighty is his name.

Works Cited

The Bible. New International Version, Zondervan Publishing House, 1984.

Cho, Donny. “Pride: The Rejected King | Donny Cho | January 8, 2023 | Metro Sunday Worship.” YouTube, uploaded by Metro Church, January 8, 2023,

Mackie, Tim. “Torah Crash Course Part 1 - Genesis.” Exploring My Strange Bible. Apple Podcasts, uploaded August 21, 2017,

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Ozymandias.” The Poetry Foundation. United States, 2009.

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