03/03/2009 12:34 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

A Poem for Our Time

It is harder for a rich man to enter heaven, the Bible tells us, than a camel to go through the eye of a needle. Makes sense. You see it all over Dick Cheney's snarling face. When he goes, you'll have to pry his Halliburton shares from his cold, dead hands.

Every time I think of someone like Cheney or Kevin Federline, Bernie Madoff or see an USWeekly, I can't help but think of a poem my mother read to me when I was a child. It really captures this strange and beautiful time and how everything we know is falling away, or at least that's what it feels like and what history threatens.

The poem is Ozymandias by the great romantic poet Percy Shelley. He lived the grand, haunted life of a Shakespearean hero and died just as mightily--in a shipwreck off the coast of Italy. He was almost politically assassinated before his death for his unwavering idealism. (Sound familiar? Richard Wright, Abbie Hoffman, MLK, on and on...)

One of his greatest masterpieces, Ozymandias, written in 1818, tells the story of a traveler who comes across a statue in the desert of a once great king, a story about man's hubris and mortality, of power misused and a civilization fallen. It's a reminder that, no matter how we get out of this, we can't go back to how we used to be. Things have got to change in the name of the common good and there can be no more idol worship.

Dig into this and read it over and check what you feel afterward. Deep breath. Repeat. Remember it when you're walking around and spot something left of the old world, the one that's passing.


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 shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd 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.