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"Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley

John is a retired librarian who writes articles based on material gleaned mainly from obscure books and journals.

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Ozymandias is one of the best-known works by the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). It was written in 1817 at a time when Percy and Mary Shelley were living in England, before moving permanently to Italy the following year.

England during this period was experiencing unrest caused in part by bad harvests and the consequences of rapid industrialization. The wars against Napoleonic France had ended in 1815, and the country was recovering only slowly from the economic deprivations that had been caused by them.

This was, therefore, an age of growing political radicalism, which was met by stern reactionary Toryism under Prime Minister Lord Liverpool. Shelley was one of the radicals, who would later write savage political satires such as “The Mask of Anarchy.” “Ozymandias” should be read in that context.

Ozymandias

I met a traveller 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 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.”

Commentary and Analysis

The Sonnet's Form

The poem is a sonnet, consisting of 14 lines with the traditional “volta” or turning point at line 9. However, the rhyme scheme—ABABACDCEDEFEF—is unlike that of either traditional sonnet form—Petrarchan or Shakespearean. Shelley also stretches the “rules” by using half-rhymes (stone/frown and appear/despair). Although the rhythm is largely that of iambic pentameter, this is broken at places (such as line 3). These rule breaks hint at a poem that is going to step outside convention and say something that is disturbing and revolutionary.

It should be noted that almost all the poem is in reported speech. This is a second-hand account, the tale of a “traveller from an antique land” (“antique” simply means “ancient” in the sense of a place with a history going back thousands of years). This placing is actually based on a historical incident, in that an Italian explorer had retrieved the remains of the statue in question from the Egyptian desert and it had been acquired by the British Museum, although it did not arrive there until several years after Shelley wrote his poem.

The Statue

The object is a broken statue, the only portion standing upright being “two vast and trunkless legs”. There is something vaguely comical about this image – at the outset it is difficult to take this thing seriously.

More attention (five lines) is given to the statue’s head, the “shatter’d visage” which lies in the desert sand. Particular attention is given to the head’s facial expression (“frown”, “wrinkled lip”, “sneer of cold command”).

Shelley (or the “traveller”) is interested in why this should be and turns to the sculptor who created the statue. He sees this unknown artist as having imposed these features on the statue, not necessarily on the instructions of the subject. The sculptor “well those passions read”—it was his own will that prevailed.

In other words, Shelley is thinking about the artisan as opposed to the monarch whose face is being portrayed. He wrote this poem during the final years of the reign of King George III, whose mental illness had made him incapable of ruling, leaving that task in the hands of his unworthy son the Prince Regent, who was far more interested in his luxurious lifestyle than the needs of the working men on whose labour he ultimately depended. Shelley has in mind someone other than a long-dead Pharaoh as the oppressor of the working man.

Socio-political Themes

This theme is emphasized in line 7: “Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things”, referring to the passions that the sculptor has read. Disdain for the common people has a long history that is far from over at the present day.

Line 8 goes even further. Apart from the “passions”, the ruler is guilty of mocking the people and feeding off them. The “heart that fed” could indeed be a reference to the Prince Regent, whose food consumption was legendary.

Who Was Ozymandias?

The turning point, at the start of line 9, is to switch to the engraving on the statue’s pedestal:

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Ozymandias was an alternative Greek name for Pharaoh Ramses II, who ruled over the Egyptian Empire for 66 years during the 13th century BCE. He was one of the most powerful Pharaohs to rule over Egypt and he might well have been the Pharaoh that the author of the Book of Exodus had in mind as the enslaver of the descendants of Jacob and who was outwitted by Moses.

Ramses was noted for the huge number of buildings that he instituted in Egypt, including temples and a complete new city named Pi Ramesse Aa-nakhta, which translates as “House of Ramses Great of Victories”, although little can be seen of this city today. He also commissioned a vast number of statues of himself. Shelley clearly took the view that he did this purely for self-glorification, although Ramses’s motive may have had more to do with trying to ensure his status in the afterlife, which creating images of oneself was supposed to enhance.

The couplet is a paraphrase of a line by the ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus of what he claimed was an actual inscription on a statue of Ramses that read "King of Kings am I, Osymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works."

The Decline of the Rich and Powerful

The sentiment here continues the arrogance conveyed by the facial expression mentioned earlier. This was someone who was utterly convinced that he was the most powerful man in the world and who could do no wrong. If anyone wanted proof of his greatness, they only had to look around them to see the evidence.

But then comes the poem’s second turning point, and its ultimate jibe at the rich and powerful.

If they do what they are invited to do and look around, what do they see? Only what is described in the poem’s final three lines: “Nothing beside remains”; “decay”; “bare … sands stretch far away.”

The message is clear enough: How are the mighty fallen. Every vestige of power will turn to dust because it is ultimately built on sand, just like the statue of Ozymandias.

This message, just like the earlier one regarding the oppression of the common people, has relevance for the time during which Shelley was active. It was not long since one tyrant—Napoleon Bonaparte—had been brought low, and Shelley was well aware that others remained, not least in his own country.

The governing class in England during the early decades of the 19th century had an abiding fear of the power of the mob and of what might happen to them if that power was ever allowed to gain the upper hand. Many of the country’s leaders had memories of the French Revolution (1789-99) and dreaded such a thing happening in their own country. They could see no alternative to governing in a way that Shelley and his friends regarded as despotic and against which they devoted their literary efforts.

“Ozymandias” is a poem that Shelley intended as part of his campaign to inspire belief in the possibility of overcoming oppression and changing the current political and social state of affairs.

Comments

Liz Westwood from UK on March 26, 2020:

You have written an interesting commentary on this poem. It's good to focus on something different to coronavirus for a change.

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