Look on My Works Ye Mighty and Despair

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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.
Percy Bysshe ShelleyOzymandias

This trope describes none other than the hubris of mankind itself. Mankind, being the self-centered species it is, has a tendency to think that the world revolves around themselves, and that they at their current time period have reached the true apex of civilization, the pinnacle of culture. In celebration of their glory, humanity builds monuments to itself. Architecture becomes grandiose, Crystal Spires and Togas become the hot new fashion trend, and pomp and splendor reign throughout the land. This is the Pride before the fall.

On a smaller scale, however, this can also mean any work of fiction involving a cautionary tale where people blindly build or otherwise invest huge amounts of energy into a pursuit, confident that they will succeed, only to have it backfire, and end in catastrophe.

In the end, nothing is left but ashes and the ruins of a great effort gone to waste. Humanity learns a painful lesson. How the Mighty Have Fallen! At least, for a while. As a trope in literature, this oftentimes comes up as An Aesop about Pride and humility, and, dating back to even Old Testament tales about the Tower of Babel, is Older Than Feudalism.

If it involves science or magic, it will often cross into Gone Horribly Wrong because the undertaking violates one or more items on the Scale of Scientific Sins.

Compare with And Man Grew Proud. A sister trope to How the Mighty Have Fallen.

(Useful note: The Trope Namer line is frequently misremembered/misquoted: it's "look on my works," not "look upon my works".) Even more frequently, it is simplified to "Look upon me, O world, and despair!"

Examples of Look on My Works Ye Mighty and Despair include:


Anime and Manga[edit | hide | hide all]

  • The nation of Xerxes from Fullmetal Alchemist appears to be partially based on Shelley's poem. The entire population was killed in the course of a day due to the arrogance of the king. All that remains are ruins in the middle of a desert, and two immortals.


Comics[edit | hide]

  • This is one fan theory on the aftermath of Watchmen--and a very appropriate one, at that, supported by Ozymandias' name and "Look upon my works, ye mighty" being the name of the chapter where his plan is revealed- it's quite possible that his united world wouldn't last all that long...
    • Though of course Ozymandias himself is more aware of the significance of his name than anyone.

Adrian: I did the right thing in the end, didn't I?
Dr. Manhattan: "In the end"? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.

    • What's also speculated is that the invocation of this trope shows that Ozymandias's plan hinged upon no one ever finding out the absolute magnitude of what he had achieved.


Films -- Live-Action[edit | hide]

  • Jurassic Park ought to be a textbook example. Guy wants to make something of lasting beauty and appeal, accessible to all, and in the process enrich the world. What does he get? Out of control dinosaurs and several instances of "I told you so"'.
    • Neatly summed up by Dr. Ian Malcolm: "God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. God creates man. Man destroys God. Man creates dinosaurs."
    • Ironically, it wasn't so much the dinosaurs but his attempt to automate everything on a computer system during a hurricane. The same thing would have happened if it had been a lion safari park, just on a smaller scale.
      • In the book they would have found the reproduction problems immediately, but they had a few features turned on that stopped counting animals when it reached the number they had released (to save computer cycles). Refusing to tell the system designer what it was actually intended for led to several other problems he was on the island to fix. Other than corporate espionage, of course.
        • He also hired experts who were really, really good at what they did—then ignored their advice completely.(Even Nedry.) Combine that with well-meaning but vaguely-worded instructions, and I'm starting to think Jurassic Park is about politics!
    • In the book, an entire chapter is devoted to geneticist Henry Wu's introspection and flashbacks to how John Hammond recruited him into his team. Dr. Wu's all-consuming drive to "make his mark", to achieve something that would put him in history books, is pointed out as his greatest flaw, making him blind to the consequences of his work.
  • The Krell in Forbidden Planet built a sort of whole-planet Hard Light holodeck that could bring a significant amount of energy and matter together at nearly any point for basically any purpose. It worked wonderfully until they went to sleep, and the hidden violent fantasies of their subconscious minds destroyed their entire civilization in one night of bloodshed.
  • Metropolis: So what if the shining city of the future depends on the suffering of the workers upholding it? They certainly won't rise up and destroy the city... right? Also note that, fearing the audience would miss the point, the author blatantly referenced the Ur-example through a mid-film sermon and by naming the city center the "New Tower of Babel".


Literature[edit | hide]

  • In Jingo, the only significant monumental remnant of Tacticus's campaign in Klatch is a single sandalled foot on a pedestal. The quote is a lot more interesting when translated, being both a boast and a threat at once:

I can see your house from up here.

    • A less antagonistic version appears in Interesting Times. Rincewind blunders into a tomb, and all there is is the name, "One Sun Mirror". No additional remarks (eg "One Sun Mirror, beloved father and aardvark fancier"), just the name, as though knowing the name means you know everything else you need to know about the guy.
  • In the world of Wheel of Time, there are several (some pretty large) statues and ruins left from the Age of Legends.
    • They're so common, in fact, that people hardly notice them, except for their convenience as landmarks.
  • The Name of the Rose deals with the loss of knowledge and art to history. A lost work becomes the MacGuffin, and in the novel's climax the monastery and its priceless library are burned down by a monk afraid of its knowledge slipping out of his control.
  • Before the events of The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss, the Once-ler and his relatives ran a lucrative, though highly destructive, business turning the foliage of the Truffula Trees into Thneeds. When the last Truffula Tree is felled, however, the Thneed factories shut down and the Once-ler's relatives leave for new ventures. By the time the story begins, all that remains of the forest is a field of tree stumps, the ruins of the Thneed factories, and the Once-ler himself.
  • Inverted in In the Keep of Time. The people of Kelso in the future, though disapproving of the greed which they believe led the Technological Civilization to its doom, very much admire the buildings, monuments, and other remnants of our world left behind and are quite interested in studying and understanding it, as well as doing their best to preserve and make new use of it in their world. At the same time, they are determined not to let history repeat itself. On a more meta level, Smailholm Tower itself seems symbolic of this, since it remains even centuries in the future and, in the belief of the author, will "still stand when our knowledge and skills are but a chapter in the course of the history of man"—i.e., a sign of the wonders and glory of man, rather than of pride and hubris.
  • The A Song of Ice and Fire series has many examples. The North had hundreds of ruins and tombs dating back thousands of years from the era of the First Men. Likewise, the many castles of the Night's Watch along the Wall: Once, there were nearly twenty fully-manned keeps; now, only three remain in use, while the others have fallen into ruin over the past few centuries. But the crowning achievement can only be Harrenhal. In the distant past, King Harren spent forty years designing and building the largest, most magnificent castle in all the Seven Kingdoms, bankrupting his realm in the process. And the very day construction is complete and he moves into residence, Aegon the Conquerer lands on the shores of Westeros. Barely a year later, Aegon's dragons torch Harrenhal into molten slag. Today, nearly three centuries later, Harrenhal still stands, but in a state of perpetual disrepair, with crumbling towers and passageways. The lands and incomes of Harrenhal's fiefdom are very wealthy, though, but there has never been a Lord of Harrenhal that has not come to a bad end.
  • In Star Trek: Department of Temporal Investigations, most of the races represented in the Axis of Time (basically a Place Beyond Time) have to deal with this. In the time periods they consider to be "the present", they're often thriving cultures, indeed the leading races of their interstellar communities. But thanks to the Axis they know that a few thousand years later and they'll have been forgotten, being at best archaeological curiosities to the next group of spacefaring cultures and at worst lost to history.


Live-Action TV[edit | hide]

  • The planet Minos in Star Trek: The Next Generation wanted to build the ultimate weapons system to make themselves "The Arsenal of Freedom". Unfortunately, the sales-pitch hologram program they created to help sell it wouldn't take no for an answer, and destroyed their civilization as a demonstration of the weapon's power.
  • One of the dead planets visited by the crew of the Excalibur in Crusade was destroyed by a techno-mage they had hired to fight a war for them. The nanotech weapon he created for them took over their minds and forced them to murder each other.
  • The picture above is from Lost. The trope may apply to the four-toed statue and the other ancient ruins on the island. It also applies to the DHARMA Initiative, a group who came to the island with lofty goals for humanity, and ended up murdered and thrown in a mass grave.
  • Life After People is less a condemnation of man's hubris than a scientific exposition of how everything humanity has right now will eventually decay and that there'll be little left to indicate we were ever here long after our extinction.
    • For the record, Mount Rushmore is predicted to last the longest, with it taking millions of years for it to erode away completely.
  • Ripley's Believe It or Not! showed a man who once dug a tunnel through bedrock with handtools and dynamite to create a shortcut for trains hauling gold in Nevada over the course of 40 years. Before he finished the trains stopped running when the gold mine dried up. He completed the tunnel anyway. They estimated that because of the bedrock he dug into it will last millions of years and remain as mankinds final testament, outlasting everything else ever created.
    • Might have been true at one point. However, with the Voyager and New Horizons missions (and possibly others) heading into interstellar space, it's probably lost that claim.
      • It could still be the last trace on Earth, though.
  • Emperor Londo Mollari of Babylon 5 feels the full weight of this trope towards the end of his character arc when the Drakh use his own gambit against him to blackmail him into becoming a puppet ruler, driving the Centauri Republic further into isolation and ruin. In the end, he sulks in his throne room drowning his sorrows because he can't bear the thought of glancing at the ruined cityscape unprepared and bursting into tears.
    • He also drinks because his "keeper" is more affected by alcohol than he is, so he gets a brief period of (somewhat sozzled) freedom.
  • Pretty much the point of Battlestar Galactica Reimagined and Caprica.
  • In How I Met Your Mother, Ted Moesby invokes the key lines of the poem when looking upon The Arcadia, a hotel he has just resolved to demolish.


Poetry[edit | hide]

  • "Ozymandias", the Trope Namer, describes a monument in Egypt, buried in the sand, lost to time. The irony is that the inscription was originally supposed to mean "Look at how great (and everlasting) my works are, surely any other man is nothing before me", but the desolation changes it to mean "Not even the greatest of works lasts forever, and not even the greatest of men is remembered forever".
    • Ironically, Ozymandias is an alternate name for Ramses the Great, so while the monument may have been destroyed the pharaoh himself is about the opposite of forgotten.
      • And the poem helps maintain his legacy. Hands up - who here would have known the name "Ozymandias" if not for Shelley? (or if not for D. C. Simpson)
    • Shelley wrote Ozymandias in a competition with his friend Horace Smith. Smith's entry was also called Ozymandias (though later changed to "On A Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below" on the theory that this was a better name) and featured the same themes. It's fair to say that Shelley won.
  • "Recessional", by Rudyard Kipling, laments how the British Empire could collapse like all other empires before it.
    • Also Kipling's "Hymn of Breaking Strain"
  • "The Ruin", by an unknown Anglo-Saxon author.


Tabletop Games[edit | hide]

  • The Eldar in Warhammer 40,000. Their empire ruled most of the galaxy and possessed the power to destroy stars on whim, yet it was brought low by their own hedonism, which spawned the Chaos God Slaanesh, whose birth tore a huge hole in the fabric of reality, engulfing a large chunk of their empire and destroying the souls of the majority of their species. Humans from 40k may also count, as their original star-spanning civilization (before the Imperium) was destroyed due to a combination of warp storms and a robot uprising.
    • And yet, the haven't learned their lesson.

"Their arrogance is matched only by their firepower."

  • Dungeons & Dragons module I3 "Pharaoh" has a reference to Ozymandias. A statue sticks out of the desert sand, the face scarred by the ravages of time and sand. An inscription reads:

My name is Maniozimus. Look upon the ruins of the great city that surround you and despair. Great magic once was, now you see only the mighty ruins of men's works.


Videogames[edit | hide]

  • BioShock (series) depicts an underwater city, conceived as an ambitious project to create a capitalist Utopia, but which has fallen on, ahem, shall we say hard times?
  • The mostly-forgotten computer game Jurassic Park: Trespasser even had an Easter egg where John Hammond quotes "Ozymandias". Fitting, since most of the game consists of you poking around the ruined research buildings of Site B as Hammond's voice-over recounts the wonders and achievements he unearthed there, all for naught.
  • Chrono Trigger- The Kingdom of Zeal, a highly prospering society of technology, art, and magic which drew its power from the Mammon Machine, a device that tapped into the power of Lavos and eventually led to his awakening when set to max power - and in turn he destroyed Zeal and almost all of the world below it.
  • In Mass Effect, the Normandy surveys an uninhabited world that was once host to a technologically-advanced civilization that had gone extinct. All that is left is the hollowed-out remains of buildings, and a single column with text on it. When eventually translated, it read "walk among these works, and know our greatness". However, there are crude scratches at the base of the column, which simply read "monsters from the id".
    • Other planets found include an entire world full of tombs and worlds with what seem to be huge sculptures orbiting them.
    • We also find out that it's an Invoked Trope as well; galactic civilization is violently driven to extinction by the Reapers every 50, 000 years or so. Many surveyed worlds contain obvious signs of being colonized in the distant past in the form of small ruins from once-great civilizations, with equally obvious signs of removal via orbital bombardment. Liara is the only archeologist to either notice or acknowledge that looking at every one of these sites in relation to each other shows a cyclic pattern, whereas everyone else simply assumes these civilizations fought standard wars and lost. As if to drive the point home further, Sovereign even says that the Reapers strike each galactic civilization "at the apex of their glory."
    • The Protheans appear to be an aversion since they're long-gone but modern-day civilization uses their FTL technology as part of everyday life, and everyone knows who they were. Related to the above point, they didn't make the technology either, and most actual Prothean discoveries are old, weathered, and busted. This is shown dramatically when the Normandy reaches Ilos and Vigil explains the fall of their civilization, as well as the slow but steady decaying of Ilos itself into what they see in the present, in detail.
  • World of Warcraft has plenty of ruins marking the sites of the Night Elves' magnificent, but ultimately doomed civilization. Bonus points for featuring the feet of elven colossi in the ruins of Azshara, but with little left of the statues otherwise.
    • Some ruins are significantly older than that, with the fossilized remains of their builders sticking out of the walls.
    • You would hardly know it by their present existence, but Troll civilizations once spanned the entire world of Azeroth, and magnificent ruins of Troll architecture can be found in every corner of all three continents. The trolls are still around, but their societies are much diminished.
  • Final Fantasy X has, in addition to other machina-ruins, the river Moonflow. Backstory indicates that man constructed a massive city spanning over the river on a bridge. Needless to say, one day they brought a toothpick with them to the city and it collapsed into the river.
  • Played with in Blue Dragon: After traveling through an underground ruin of an obviously advanced civilization, the party emerges topside to find a town full of ancient murals...which are sentient and friendly, and conduct their own daily business like the humans they have effectively replaced. There are even evil murals that commit crimes and attack you in random encounters.
  • This quote appears (like many others) in Civilization, but is otherwise not an example. Unless you build so many wonders that your opponents get jealous and decide to steamroll you.
    • In Civ V, one of the reasons another civilization might hate you is because you beat them in building one or more wonders.
  • In the final chapter of Neverwinter Nights Shadows of Undrentide, your adventure carries you through the halls of the titular crashed flying city. You even get to talk to the guy whose arrogant attempt to look on the face of Mystra brought low the mighty Netheril Empire.
    • It should be noted that the plan worked perfectly: he took Mystra's place as the god of magic. He simply wasn't quit up to the task...
  • Seeing the grander of Deus Ex Human Revolution, and the Crapsack World Deus Ex features, twenty-five years after wards, it's a safe bet this trope fell upon Deus Ex universe.
  • An underlying theme in all Fallout, but very prominent in Fallout 3 amongst the ruins of Washington, D.C. proper.
  • One of the many things players in Dwarf Fortress can do is to build mega projects, including dams, giant statues of dwarfs or otherwise. However this often ends badly due to various reasons, most of the time because of a simple miscalculation by the player if water or magma was involved.


Webcomics[edit | hide]

Western Animation[edit | hide]

Slithe: How quickly things change for the Cats: from top predator to endangered species! In a single day!

  • Fire Lord Ozai from Avatar:The Last Airbender fits this so well his name is even similar to Ozymandias. He wears an over-the-top red and gold costume, he rides around in a giant gold airship and builds giant staues of himself everywhere. But in the end, none of this matters becuase, when peace is declared, his statues are torn down, his army is destroyed, and his legacy as a conqueror is obliterated. His final fate is to live out his remaining days as a pathetic, powerless old man in jail, while his hated son and brother will be remembered as heroes.


Real Life[edit | hide]

  • Collapse by Jared Diamond lists a number of civilizations to which this trope could apply. It even quotes Shelley's poem as an epigram.
  • An example appearing both in Diamond's book and in similar studies in general is Easter Island. Once a home to a flourishing, distinctive Polynesian civilization, it saw its downfall in a matter of a few dozens of years. Archeological study links it to the deforestation caused by the expense of construction of famed moai statues.
  • The current spate of World Without Us/Life After People books and programs are basically one long Look Upon Our Works speech. A couple thousand years, and even our garbage is sunken out of view forever.
  • The wreck of the Titanic has been upheld as a metaphor for man's hubris more times than most folk can count. The Onion even parodied this in Our Dumb Century, with the April 1912 headline "World's Largest Metaphor Hits Iceberg".
  • Ironically averted by the Real Life Ozymandias, AKA Ramses the Great. Over three thousand years after his death, the breadth and vastness of his empire is still known to be the greatest of any Egyptian Pharaoh. Indeed, if asked to name a single Pharaoh, aside from Tutankhamun (or "King Tut"), he is the most commonly remembered.
    • On the other hand, it's also played straight, the very empire he ruled has long since crumbled to dust. After its second conquest by the Persians, Egypt would not be independent of foreign dominance until the Tulunids in the 6th century. Even the culture of Pharonic Egypt was wiped out by successive waves of Greek, Roman, Christian, and Islamic culture.