Ozymandias: about the poem
Ozymandias is one of the most anthologized poems written by the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. It is a sonnet, first published in The Examiner in 1818. The next year, it got a place in Shelley’s collection Rosalind and Helen, A Modern Eclogue; with Other Poems (1819).
The sonnet is about the ruins of a statue of Ozymandias. In antiquity, Ozymandias was a Greek name for the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II, who ruled from 1279 BCE to 1213 BCE. It’s no surprise that the poem is named after him.
But, the poem ironically presents a great message about the transitory (short-lived) existence of the boastful might of the ruler. The king once enjoyed his commanding power, but time has brought its decay. Even his statue is now reduced to dust. But the head of the statue which is half-sunk in the sand, still expresses the passions of the ruler. So, what remains alive is the sculptor’s work of art. So the poet here highlights the mortality and inevitable decline of so-called mighty leaders and their false pride in contrary to the immortality of creative works.
Though the subject of the sonnet is not a typical one for Shelley’s poetry, it has been a popular poem and has influenced many other literary creations since its publication.
It is worth mentioning here that Shelley wrote this poem in competition with his friend Horace Smith who primarily gave his poem the same name ‘Ozymandias’ and published that in the same magazine. Wikipedia has a side by side comparison of the two poems.
The poem is a narrative poem where the speaker starts it with ‘I’, making it look like a first person narrative. But, then it gets into a frame of reported speech from another man, ‘a traveller from an antique land’, whom the speaker met. Actually this sonnet got its content from the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus who wrote about a massive Egyptian statue quoting the inscription under it. So, Diodorus’s work served as the source of the poem.
The sonnet is in Iambic pentameter with some irregularities. The rhyme scheme ABABACDCEDEFEF is uncommon for a sonnet. The octave (first eight lines of a sonnet) and the sestet (last six-line stanza of a sonnet) are linked together. Clearly, the poet has experimented with the form and rhyme scheme of the sonnet.
Ozymandias: Line by line explanation
I met a traveller from an antique land,
The speaker of the poem once met a traveler from ‘an antique land’. So, the traveller was from a place with an ancient history like Rome, Greece or ancient Egypt. The traveller told him his story of the ruins of a giant statue that he had come across.
So, it’s a story within a story, a narrative within a narrative. Some critics opine that this framing has helped the poet add another level of obscurity to Ozymandias’s position in people’s mind. It is suggestive of how pride and glory of power fade away with time.
“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies,
The traveller told the narrator that he saw two huge stone-legs of a statue in the middle of a desert. ‘Trunkless’ suggests that the legs were standing there without the upper body or the torso. The desert indicates that it was ancient Egypt. Near the standing legs he also came across the broken head (shattered visage) of the statue that was partially buried in the sand. visage means a face; but it implies a head here.
The shattered head denotes that the whole statue is destroyed. But we don’t really know what exactly happened to that statue. It’s perhaps just the natural process of decay with time.
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
The traveller goes on to describe that the face of the statue lying on the sand had the expressions still visible and identifiable of the mighty ruler Ozymandias. He has used ‘frown’, ‘wrinkled up’ and ‘sneer of cold command’ to give us an impression that the subject of the statue was an angry, commanding and often upset man.
But the next line shifts the attention from the statue to the sculptor who created it. The traveller admires that the artist understood and felt (read) his subject’s (the man in the statue) passions and emotions very well. That is why he could draw the face so perfectly that it is still visible.
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
The man continues his praise for the sculptor. The words ‘which yet survive’ implies the immortality of a work of art that the artist created. His creation is still alive (stamped) on the otherwise lifeless stones. The sculptor’s hands copied and portrayed (mocked) his subject’s passions and his heart felt those and inspired (fed) to make it possible. So, that hand and that heart ‘yet survive’ through this masterful creation.
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Now, again the poem shifts to the statue. The traveller quotes the words written on its pedestal. The inscription declares the name of the man. It’s Ozymandias. He also regarded himself as the ‘King of Kings’. The ruler addresses others who think themselves powerful (Mighty) to look at his works to get their illusion shattered (despair). As you already know from the above section that this was the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II, the ‘works’ might indicate to the famous temples and statues he built.
Here Ozymandias is giving a warning to the other kings and rulers not to hope for much greatness, as they can never cross his achievements. That certainly gives an impression of his proud and commanding nature. But ironical enough, his own statue is now grounded by the great force of nature.
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
And here comes the final words from the traveller on how there is nothing except those ruins and the sands all around. ‘The colossal Wreck’ hints at how the gigantic statue and the high-flying passions attached to it are all dusted now. The ‘boundless and bare’ and the ‘lone and level’ sands stretching far away symbolizes the vastness of time.
We the human beings are very little creatures in the vast passage of time. Our pride and might will eventually disappear. But what remains immortal is the work of art. These last lines suggest the central theme of the sonnet.