People look for ways to immortalize themselves, “to have,” as Byron says, “when the original is dust,/A name, a wretched picture, and worse bust.” The last several stanzas of the first Canto of “Don Juan” poke gentle fun at the idea that anyone should strive for such permanence. “Let not a moment give you or me hopes,/since not a pinch of dust remains of Cheops.”
Likewise, Shelley conjures a ruler of Egypt (Cheops was an Egyptian king, credited with the construction of the first pyramid) to express the same futile attempt to maintain one’s memory indefinitely. His poem “Ozymandias” describes the ruins of a statue, legs still standing bodiless in the desert, above a plaque that demands its reader to look upon the realm of Ozymandias. The traveler who comes upon said statue and relates the scene to Shelley’s readers remarks, however, on the irony of the scene; not only are the surroundings empty and dry, the statue itself—Ozymandias and his attempt to live forever—has crumbled.
In either poem, the author has presented the seemingly timeless human fear of death, and beyond death, being forgotten. Byron talks about the issue with some humor, joking that though “things that have been born were born to die,” a reader ought to “thank [his] stars that matters are no worse/and read [his] Bible…and mind [his] purse,” presumably with little concern for a promise of forever. Shelley’s illustration of the simple irony in Ozymandias’s command leaves interpretation open to his readers, although his message about the uselessness of the plaque and statue is clear.
John Keats wrote a poem that similarly deals with the reality of death, and the anxiety about the unknown thereafter. However, he neglects to use any examples of a person’s desire for permanent remembrance and identifies immediately and personally with the fear of dying. “When I have fears that I may cease to be/before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain…” Keats does not pretend that immortality is an option, although he certainly does not deny his anxious wonderings about life’s end. More than Shelley or Byron, Keats is honest and forthright with the crux of both “Ozymandias” and the selected lines from “Don Juan.” The lesson that all three poets share, and that Keats plainly defines, is that regardless of human attempts at death-defiant constancy, “Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.”