Yesterday I wrote about Dr. Kalanithi, a thirty-seven year old Stanford physician who died of cancer a few days ago. In the video he recited a poem I had forgotten about—even though I took a class in the Romantic poets forty years ago—Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” I thank the late Dr. Kalanithi for reminding me of the poem. Kalanithi’s use of the poem to express the inevitable decline of our bodies as well as our pretensions to greatness is perfectly placed in his essay. If we really contemplated our impending deaths we might be more humble and wise. Still, I hold death to be a tragedy, and long for the time when we defeat it.
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 Younger Memnon statue of Ramesses II in the British Museum. Its imminent arrival in London likely inspired the poem.