I met a traveler 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 upon 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.

In my last year of secondary school English was one of my weakest subjects, according to my English teacher. I think the reason for this may have been the 45 minute argument I had with her over “Lord of the Flies”, during which I disputed the established wisdom of the Irish educational establishment which was that the book was all about the innate evil of man, claiming instead that the boys on that island had simply adapted to their environment in an entirely appropriate way.

Anyhow, my parents were duly instructed to acquire an English tutor, without which I apparently stood little chance of passing my honours Irish leaving certificate examination, upon which my entire future depended.

My English tutor taught me a number of interesting things. During one of our first encounters I was rather shocked to discover that she didn’t agree with what I believed to be a rather obvious statement, that things are getting better.

I spent some time explaining the numerous progresses in science and technology, but with the exception of dentistry, she was rather reluctant to accept that any of these things really had a practical bearing on people’s standard of living relative to what people had in the past.

The first poem she selected for our study was Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley. I quite liked it because it was short. It wasn’t until we had spent several days investigating it that it occurred to me that her choice of poem may have been related to our discussion about progress. Perhaps my idea of progress, of science and technology, and of knowledge of our universe, might just be a futile monument to our hubris, just as Ozymandias’ statue was.

Scary stuff for an 18 year old tech idealist – beware the English tutor….

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