The Ravages of Nature and Time on Public Memory
“Ozymandias” (1818), by Percy Bysshe ShelleyI 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.”
This sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley comes to mind whenever I read articles about the debates over public monuments.
The poem is about the fragility of history and the ravaging effect of time on public memory. Here, a monument that is supposed to serve as testament to the power of Ozymandias, “King of Kings,” has instead decayed to the point where it ironically demonstrates how fleeting and ultimately inconsequential political power is. The sands of time have literally wiped away the civilization over which Ozymandias ruled and were it not for his broken statue, both could have easily disappeared into the proverbial “dustbin of history” and no one would have known the difference.
History enters the picture at the beginning of the poem, and even its appearance creates a distancing effect. The narrator is relating a report from an anonymous traveler who comes “from an antique land.” This traveler serves as a kind of historian and commands the stage from the second line of the poem to the end. Yet the details that the traveler provides about the king are scant because so little evidence survives. In fact, almost all of the evidence the traveler presents is aesthetic in noting how well the sculptor captured Ozymandias’s “frown,” “wrinkled lip,” and “sneer of cold command.”
As readers, we are left to ponder how Ozymandias’s belief that memorializing his image in a massive, permanent monument will be a means of securing his unrivaled reputation forever, yet his decaying image now ironically proves the abstract principle that even the hardest stone is not impervious to the ultimate power of nature and time. Rather than creating awe, Ozymandias instead looks foolish for believing his power will ripple through time immemorial. His commanding words inscribed at the base of his statue now come across as pitiful.
Shelley’s poem raises profound existential questions about monuments and their ability to hold and promote history over time. But what are we to think about the problematic monuments, statues, and official images that occupy our public sphere today? What are we to do about the Westborough seal and its glorification of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin? While Shelley’s poem provides important context for any monument that was erected with the intention of permanence, it does not provide pragmatic guidance for whether or not to tolerate problematic historical markers no matter what, to place them in a new context, to relocate them to an out of the way place, or simply to allow nature and time to take its toll.
There are no easy answers to these questions, and I do not have the space to address the intricacies of each option in a newsletter such as this one (although I may address some of them over time in the future). Luckily, the Westborough Public Library has resources that can help us think more about these kinds of issues so that we can come to a better understanding of what it means to put up a monument and how it may take on additional meanings in a future that we may not be able to anticipate.
–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian
- David B. Allison, ed. Controversial Monuments and Memorials: A Guide for Community Leaders
This anthology has lots of thought-provoking essays by historians, museum professionals, and community leaders that address current concerns over controversial monuments and memorials. Many of the essays focus on Confederate monuments, but others reflect on Native American representations, how to listen and respond to communities and their views, and even how The Simpsons use satire to comment on heroes. If you are looking for an in-depth resource on this topic, this one is it!
- Denise D. Meringolo, Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Pubic History
Even history has a history. We often take for granted that history is a necessary component of the public sphere, but that has not always been the case. This book shows how public history grew out of new efforts by the U.S. federal government to collect and preserve natural and cultural resources in the nineteenth century, and how the interpretation of history eventually became an important component in those efforts in the 1920s and 1930s.
- Kimberly A. Kenney, Interpreting Anniversaries and Milestones at Museums and Historic Sites
Recent controversies over problematic monuments and statues have clouded over the celebratory nature that such memorials can have in general. This practical book cites best practices for any consideration of a celebratory anniversary or milestone. The volume is appropriate not just for museums or historic sites, but also for churches, towns, libraries, arts organizations or any other group looking to celebrate past achievements.
- Lauret E. Savoy, Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape
If you are interested in the themes that appear in Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” then you might enjoy this book. Savoy both literally and figuratively explores the American geography and landscape and connects them to history, civilization, time, and memory. As she travels across the United States, Savoy reflects on people who inhabited the country in the past, her family and personal connections to the land, what it means to live with the memory of others.
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Regular readers of my “Pastimes” newsletter know that one of the themes I have been interested in lately is nuance, complexity, and ambiguity. The Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library continues to impress me with their imaginative exhibits involving maps and representational data, and their latest interactive, online exhibit (which originally was supposed to be a physical exhibit until the BPL was closed as a result of the pandemic) follows this theme.
Rather than have me describe the exhibit, though, I am going to quote from their newsletter:
With the arrival of the fall season, we are ever more aware of how our country is in a series of crises, on issues ranging from health and elections, to the ongoing struggles for racial and social justice. As an educational institution within a library we are concerned not only with how facts and data have been historically treated, but also how their modern-day use must be accompanied by transparency and clarity.
A central idea in our online exhibition Bending Lines: Maps and Data from Distortion to Deception is data justice—the recognition that data is an important factor in how people live, how they are governed, and how decisions get made that affect their lives. In the exhibition section Demystifying Data, we show how even when cartographers and designers aren’t deliberately trying to mislead their viewers, one must still be careful to recognize the biases and choices that lurk within data sets.