Reflections on Ecclesiastes, part 3: The illusion of human "progress"
"There is nothing new under the sun..."
One day in 1816, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley went for a visit to the British Museum. He took along his friend, Horace Smith, a banker who composed poetry during his spare hours. The museum had recently obtained a statue of the Egyptian pharaoh, Rameses II, also known as Ozymandias, and Shelley and Smith were eager to see this new acquisition. The sight of its state of deterioration made lasting impressions on both men, which they discussed at length afterwards. What had fired their fancies most was the contrast between what they imagined the original grandeur of the statue must have been as contrasted with the ruined condition they beheld. It seemed to them a sort of parable of the rise and fall of civilizations in general – a perspective that might have appealed to Oswald Spengler. It was Smith who came up with the idea of a competition between himself and Shelley: each would write a sonnet for the magazine, The Examiner, on the subject of the statue of Rameses and the sensations it had induced in them. Shelley agreed to the competition, and from the friendly contest came his famous poem, Ozymandias (1817). It was printed in the January 11, 1818 issue of the magazine, and Smith’s (mostly forgotten) effort followed in the February 1 issue. Most of us have, at one time or another, read Shelley’s poem, but here it is for those of us who haven’t:
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