- This article is about Shelley's poem. For other uses, see Ozymandias (disambiguation).
OZYMANDIAS of EGYPT
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 shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd 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.
Ozymandias (now pronounced /oh-zee-mand-yass/, even though ancient Greeks would pronounce Οσυμανδίας /oh-sü-mand-yass/) is a famous 1818 sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley.
This short poem, probably Shelley's most famous due to its frequent appearance in anthologies, combines a number of great themes — the arrogance and transience of power, the permanence of real art and emotional truth, the contradictory and critical character of the relationship between artist and subject — with striking imagery, a setting that merges exotic distance (Egypt, Ozymandias, the desert) with the more familiar and topical (Napoleon, and a European, presumably English, traveller/commentator -- an echo of the viator of classical epitaphs ), and virtuoso diction. It is as famous as the best poems of Horace or Pushkin.
Ozymandias was written in December 1817 during a writing contest and first published in Leigh Hunt's Examiner of January 11, 1818. It was republished in Shelley's Rosalind and Helen volume of 1819, and in the 'Advertisement' prefacing the volume, Shelley describes it as one of "a few scattered poems I left in England" which were used to pad out the book. Shelley also points out that the poem was selected for the book by his 'bookseller' (publisher) and not by himself. Some consider these nonchalant statements as indicating that Shelley was not particularly proud of this piece. Others disagree, considering the consistency of the ideas with Shelley's hatred of tyranny, the impact of the poem, and the brilliance of the diction and musicality of the language.
Despite its enduring popularity, many Shelley scholars have however seen it as a piece of trivia, and few studies of Shelley's career make much of it. Harold Bloom's Shelley's Mythmaking (1959), the major Shelley study of the twentieth century and the book that restored the importance of Shelley's reputation, does not mention it at all, but this is hardly surprising given the critic's conservative idealism and repudiation in the late 1960s of the more revolutionary implications of the Romantic vision. The political resonance of the poem, and perhaps its brevity, almost certainly contributed to this scholarly disregard.
The name Ozymandias (or Osymandias) is generally believed to refer to Ramesses the Great (i.e., Ramesses II) of Egypt. Ozymandias represents a transliteration into Greek of a part of Ramesses's throne name, User-maat-re Setep-en-re. The sonnet paraphrases the inscription on the base of the statue,
given by Diodorus Siculus as "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" (quoted by ).
The difficulty of verse 6 to 8 is largely resolved by reading "survive" as a transitive verb. The lines are usually understood as meaning that those passions (arrogance and sneer) have survived (outlived) both the sculptor (whose hand mocked those passions by stamping them so well on the statue) and the pharaoh (whose heart fed those passions in the first place).
The double meaning of "mock'd" should also be pointed out here: this verb originally meant "to create/fashion an imitation of reality" (as in "a mockup"), as well as "to imitate" (as in "mock velvet"), before meaning "to ridicule" (especially by mimicking). In Shelley's day, the latter meaning was predominant (as seen in Shakespeare or the King James bible), but in the specific context of "the hand that mock'd them", we can read both "the hand that crafted them" and "the hand that ridiculed them".
The emphasis on the artistic intelligence shaping all this is clear, since only the creative power of the artist reading the passions and recreating them makes it possible for the viewer (the "traveller") to reflect on the skill of the hand and the cold despotism of the tyrant in the first place.
The importance of the diction here should not be underestimated, either, since to get the meaning across a reading needs to be flowing, coherent and borne by strong lungs. The same is true for the end of the poem, as anyone can testify who has tried to read it aloud without having to gasp for breath!
The impact of the sonnet's message comes from its double irony. The tyrant declares, "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!" Yet nothing remains of Ozymandias' works but the shattered fragments of his statue. So "the mighty" should despair — not as Ozymandias intended, but because they will share his fate of inevitable oblivion in the sands of time.
This poem is often incorrectly quoted or reproduced. The most common example is "Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!": it replaces the actual "on" with "upon", thus turning the regular decasyllabic (iambic pentameter) verse into an 11-syllable verse; and it adds an apocryphal cap to the actual "mighty", thus turning the targeted mighty kings into an hubristic defiance of a monotheistic Mighty One, an anachronism for a polytheist pharaoh who died ca. 1224 BC.
Smith's poem of the same name
Shelley apparently wrote this sonnet in competition with his friend Horace Smith, as Smith published a sonnet a month after Shelley's which takes the same subject, tells the same story, and makes the same moral point. The following lines from Smith's poem may be compared with the conclusion of Shelley's:
- In Egypt's sandy silence, all alone,
- Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
- The only shadow that the Desart knows: –
- "I am great OZYMANDIAS," saith the stone,
- "The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
- "The wonders of my hand." – The City's gone, –
- Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
- The site of this forgotten Babylon.
Shelley's poem however refrains from stating a specific moral as such, and presents a vivid tableau, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions and ponder upon the themes. The moral pathos against tyranny is so strong, however, that few readers are likely to conclude that poor Ozymandias got a raw deal from time and the elements. Nor does it address an audience of a specific time or place: until the English language falls into disuse or changes enough for the poems to be unintelligible, the audience is whoever is reading the poem and not just a Londoner. The image of a destroyed London will have no more or less effect on someone not from London than Ozymandias's statue. Also, by not wasting words on didactically pointing a "moral", as Smith does, Shelley is able to compress a comprehensive vision into a few lines, and encompass in his poem ideas entirely absent from Smith's poem.
- Reiman, Donald H. and Sharon B. Powers. Shelley's Poetry and Prose. Norton, 1977. ISBN 0-393-09164-3.