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 where people blindly build or otherwise invest huge amounts of energy into a pursuit, confident that their ambitious scheme will succeed, only to have it backfire spectacularly, and end in catastrophe and devastation, with a cautionary tale emerging from whatever records survive.
In the end, nothing is left but ashes and the ruins of a great effort gone to waste — and ironically, reason to despair, not because of their inability to compete, but because they realize they, too, will fail in the long run. 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!"
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Anime and Manga
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.
Directly referenced in Watchmen by the character Ozymandias. Being an extremely powerful and clever man, he’s completely aware of the unfortunate connotations of his name and demeanor, but is trying to reclaim the title. However, it’s up for reader interpretation whether or not he succeeds. On one hand, he might have saved all of humanity, though at the cost of everyone in New York. On the other hand, the truth may get out, showing Ozymandias’s hubris and the inevitability of nuclear destruction.
Films — Live-Action
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"'.
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.
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 note and the punchline from a questionable-taste joke about the Crucifixion, as Pterry doubtless knew:
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 Small Gods, Om, an once-powerful god now stuck in the form of a tortoise is very uncomfortable when he sees an abandoned temple in the middle of the desert.
Om: A god lived here. A powerful God. Thousands worshipped it. I can feel it. You know? It comes out of the walls. A Great God. Mighty were his dominions and magnificent was his word. [..] And now no one, not you, not me, no one, even knows who the god was or his name or what he looked like.
In Feet of Clay, the vampire Dragon King of Arms (whose long life grants him a certain perspective on these things) reflects:
In the world of The 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.
In The Book of the New Sun, the narrator keeps talking about the faces of the mountains. Surely he's just being poetic? No: it turns out that literally Every. Single. Mountain he encounters has been carved into the shape of a dead ruler in a manner reminiscent of Mount Rushmore. The irony is that nobody can even remember the names of any of these rulers, let alone anything about their lives and achievements. (Given the Crapsack World nature of the setting, it's possible that their achievements consisted exclusively of "I got my subjects to carve a mountain into my likeness.")
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.
The Tripods. Humanity has been reduced to a medieval culture ruled by the alien Tripods. Lampshaded by the vagrant Oxymandius who uses Shelley's poem as a Madness Mantra.
The lifeless ruins of the once-great city of Charn in The Magician's Nephew are strongly suggestive of this trope.
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.
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.
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.
A non-architectural variation in Walking With Beasts. The series ends with the narrator saying that if all the vast evolutionary history of the world has taught us anything, it's this; "no species lasts forever".
Breaking Bad has a more personalized version of this in Walter White building a massive meth empire as one of the greatest cooks in America. Eventually it all comes crashing down, resulting in the death of his brother-in-law, abandoning his family and losing any hope of mending his relationship with them, losing nearly all of his millions of dollars, and being forced to go into hiding. The episode in which all of this occurs is, appropriately, entitled "Ozymandias". And it, and the final season as a whole, contains MANYsubtle visual references to the poem.
From "Mad About You" by Sting:
They say a city in the desert lies The vanity of an ancient king But the city lies in broken pieces Where the wind howls and the vultures sing These are the works of man This is the sum of our ambition
"Ozymandias", the Trope Namer, describes a monument in Egypt, buried in the sand, lost to time. The irony is particularly emphasized by the 'despair' at the end of the inscription: originally it was supposed to make the observer despair in awe of the power commanded by the one who built the great monument, but the desolation changes it to an existential despair before the might of time, which would eventually leave standing neither great monuments nor memories of those who built them.
"Recessional", by Rudyard Kipling, laments how the British Empire could collapse like all other empires before it.
In Alexey Tolstoy's poem The Barrow, bards sang during a warrior's funeral that his deeds will outlast the barrow under which he's buried. Today, the barrow's still standing, but...
The Stan Freberg Show: "Incident at Los Voraces" tells the story of two casinos, El Sodom and Rancho Gomorrah, which outdid each other with bigger and bigger attractions until one of them brought in a hydrogen bomb test.
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.
The Tau also suffer from this quite heavily: they are absolutely sure of their own victory due to their technology and ideology...without realizing that the Imperium and Eldar both were even MORE advanced at the height of their power; needless to say, there is a reason the Imperium and Eldar both have a practically luddite mentality.
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.
BioShock 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?
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".
This a recurring theme in Mass Effect with the cycles of galactic civilization and extinction perpetuated by the Reapers. The Protheans commanded a vast, galaxy-spanning empire 50,000 years ago, yet now all that remains of their civilization are their ruins and technology like the Citadel space station and mass relays that made their empire possible and are now used by the current species of the galaxy. Except the Protheans didn't create the Citadel OR mass relays either; those are the works of the Reapers, who force galactic extinction every 50,000 years. The Protheans are simply the ones the current races of the galaxy know about. Far more have been forgotten completely over millions of years.
Despite the actions of the Reapers, some races manage to leave behind signs that they didn't go down without a fight. At one point you're being sent to the corpse of a dead Reaper to retrieve technology. How did they find it? They backtracked from a large canyon on a planet that was created by a massively powerful mass driver that missed its target and kept going on for millions of years.
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 only the Drakkari and Zandalari maintained significant holdings until recent events demolished them.
The Mogu once ruled most of Pandaria before they were overthrown, leaving behind two enormous palace complexes, the Serpent's Spine, and countless statues scattered across the continent. Having largely descended into barbarism, they made a failed attempt to regain power during Mists of Pandaria.
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...
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.
Especially comes up during reclamations and adventurer modes focused on lost fortresses.
The Crystal Desert in Guild Wars: Prophecies is littered with the ruined temples, towers, and cities of pilgrims who came there seeking Ascension. Internal strife, the harsh climate, and the natives of the desert wiped out all of the pilgrims.
Perhaps the most well-known landmark is the Lonely Vigil, the massive statue of a female warrior with one shattered leg. When the player approaches, it topples to the ground, leaving the classic broken feet on its pedestal.
The plot of Journey involves the main character exploring the ruins of its Precursor civilization following a civil war.
The world of The Elder Scrolls is absolutely full of ruins of the mighty kingdoms that came long since in the past. Perhaps the most notable are the Ayleids, who in their hubris believed that they would last forever.
Or the Dwemer. Haughty, egotistic and very cruel at times, they made mechanical devices, metaphysical theorem and buildings using technologies and materials centuries more advanced than anything seen since. They went so far as to try and make themselves Gods, and managed to vanish completely, the whole race, every one of them. Now all that is left are their machines and ruins picked clean by centuries of looters.
Clive Barker's Undying: According to Word of God, the Veragos that are seen in Oneiros are the remnants of great magic users who abused their power and ended up being corrupted and all but wiped out by it.
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.
Collapse by Jared Diamond lists a number of civilizations to which this trope could apply. It even quotes Shelley's poem as an epigraph.
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 II 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. And many of his works are still standing, not least of which are the temples at Abu Simbel, the "Ramesseum" (although worse for wear, it's still standing), the tomb of his chief wife Nefertari (one of the greatest achievements of Ancient Egyptian art) and his giant statues, one of which was given some replacement bits and erected in the heart of Cairo (where it promptly got attacked by pollution and acid rain...but the conservationists have managed to get to it).