‘‘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’
Ozymandias, Percy Bysse Shelley
Ozymandias is probably the most discussed 19th century poem this year. TV drama Breaking Bad – the inescapable Breaking Bad - referenced it frequently in its portrayal of the rise and fall of a crime-lord, sparking a number of articles exploring the poem. It’s a good poem from a poet I’m not particularly fond of. Shelley’s Ode to a Skylark, by contrast, does everything a poem can to switch me off. Instead, Shelley holds his subject in Ozymandias at arms length while showing us a snapshot of the consequences of the hubristic. The inevitable end of all things. Decay. Wreck. The vision of a bare wasteland.
That’s what gets me most about the ending. The wasteland, the dead civilisation in a land no longer hospitable; remembered only by its ruler’s desire to accumulate material things. That sneer.
I’ve seen that sneer before. It was on the face of the politician who says that global warming brings benefits, such as less people dying in winter due to warmer weather (if you don’t think about them drowning in floods). It was on the face of the politician who talks about fracking as if it were the second coming of the economic messiah. It was on the face of the politician who uses the language of environmentalism whilst delivering its polar opposite. Look on my works ye mighty.
I’ve read about the sands too. I’ve read about how the IPCC have 95% confidence in global warming as being caused by humans, and how Australia needed to create new colours for its weather maps to keep up with the summer heat. I’ve read how drought in the Sahel is keeping 10 million people in a state of famine and crushing poverty; and the correlations between climate change and violence. Look on my works and despair.
Poetry is truth in fiction. Poetry is not history, it is prescience not precedence. I’m aware that reading Ozymandias as an eco-poem is an eccentric thing to do from a literary perspective. But I’m more than keenly aware that reading global warming as a strictly environmental problem is no longer the right thing to do either. I also don’t have much in the way of answers. I was put on a cheap flight to France in September and have a dull ache inside where I know I’m part of the problem, despite my best attempts at recycling, eating less meat, and commitment to public transport (London to Orkney by train and bus is the feather in my cap). What we need is leadership and we need it quick, and certainly not with a sneer. And we need it before Ozymandias turns from prescient to prophecy.