Ozymandias

Ozymandias

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

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 mock’d 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;”

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Ozymandias was the Greek name for Ramses II. We should thus assume that the antique land, in the desert, referred to by the Speaker of this poem, is Egypt.

The poem is a sonnet. It has fourteen lines and is written in iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme is interesting: AB AB AC DC ED EF EF.

The poem is told from a first person perspective. The Speaker starts the poem by telling us that he met “a traveller from an antique land.” Starting in the second line, though, the traveler is quoted until the poem’s conclusion wherein he talks about what he saw in Egypt. In fact, the traveler’s quote, from line 2 through the end, is all one sentence.

What does the traveler tell us? He describes encountering an enormous statue in the desert. The large legs stand but near them in the sand is a broken face. From what remains of the face, he sees that it sneers. The picture here is of a prideful and powerful ruler.

After describing the statue, the traveler thinks about the sculptor who made the statue. The traveler states that the sculptor must have known the ruler well. Line seven is particularly noteworthy:

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

Subtly, here, we are told that art outlives its source material. The work of the sculptor lives on while the proud ruler is long since dead.

Line eight gives us more of the traveler’s insight on the subject of the sculpture. The statue of Ozymandius is said to have hands that mocked his people and a heart that fed them. This perplexing dichotomy is not elaborated upon but it is not surprising. The cruelest tyrants also prefer that his own people love him.

Line nine is the start of the sonnet’s closing sestet and it draws attention away from the statue and toward the pedestal. Here on the pedestal the traveler recounts a message from Ozymandias himself.

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

The message tells us more about Ozymandias himself. He wants all who see his works to despair in the face of his greatness. It is a sentiment probably well known to tyrants throughout history.

The last three lines of the poem put into perspective the greatness of even the greatest of human lives. The king is gone. His works are gone. His civilization is gone. The traveler says that “nothing beside remains.” The poem concludes with a great line illustrating the last influence of the king.

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The brilliance of this poem is that in addition to being applicable to Ramses, it can just as applicable to anyone with sufficient hubris.

Who is Percy Bysshe Shelley?

Percy Bysshe Shelley (/bɪʃ/ (listenBISH; 4 August 1792 – 8 July 1822) was one of the major English Romantic poets. Harold Bloom calls him: “a superb craftsman, a lyric poet without rival, and surely one of the most advanced sceptical intellects ever to write a poem.” A radical in his poetry as well as in his political and social views, Shelley did not achieve fame during his lifetime, but recognition of his achievements in poetry grew steadily following his death, and he became an important influence on subsequent generations of poets including BrowningSwinburneHardy and Yeats.

Shelley’s critical reputation fluctuated in the twentieth century, but in recent decades he has achieved increasing critical acclaim for the sweeping momentum of his poetic imagery, his mastery of genres and verse forms, and the complex interplay of sceptical, idealist and materialist ideas in his work. Among his best-known works are “Ozymandias” (1818), “Ode to the West Wind” (1819), “To a Skylark” (1820), and the political ballad “The Mask of Anarchy” (1819). His other major works include the verse drama, The Cenci (1819), and long poems such as Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude (1815), Julian and Maddalo (1819), Adonais (1821), Prometheus Unbound (1820)—widely considered his masterpiece—Hellas (1822), and his final, unfinished work, The Triumph of Life (1822).

Shelley also wrote prose fiction and a quantity of essays on political, social, and philosophical issues. Much of this poetry and prose was not published in his lifetime, or only published in expurgated form, due to the risk of prosecution for political and religious libel. From the 1820s, his poems and political and ethical writings became popular in OwenistChartist and radical political circles and later drew admirers as diverse as Karl MarxSigmund FreudCharles DarwinFriedrich NietzscheMahatma Gandhi and George Bernard Shaw.

Shelley‘s life was marked by family crises, ill health, and a backlash against his atheism, political views and defiance of social conventions. He went into permanent self-exile in Italy in 1818, and over the next four years produced what Leader and O’Neill call: “some of the finest poetry of the Romantic period.” He died in a boating accident in 1822 at the age of twenty-nine.

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