An analysis of one of Percy Shelley’s most famous poems
Published in The Examiner on 11 January 1818, ‘Ozymandias’ is perhaps Percy Bysshe Shelley’s most celebrated and best-known poem. Given its status as a great poem, a few words by way of analysis might help to elucidate some of its features and effects, as well as its meaning – what exactly is Shelley saying about great empires and civilisations? What follows is our summary and analysis of Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, our attempt to get to grips with this challenging and haunting poem.
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.’
In summary, the speaker of the poem tells of the traveller he met in an ‘antique land’ (somewhere associated with antiquity – we’ll later be able to deduce it’s Egypt) who told him about two stony stumps which stand in the desert. Near them are the remains of a stone face – evidently part of a statue – and the face bears a superior, grim expression. This stone face was clearly modelled on a real person, most probably a ruler, who once had a kingdom or empire in the desert – now long since vanished. On the pedestal of the statue’s remains there is an inscription. The inscription is ironic: Ozymandias was the Greek name for Rameses II, the Egyptian ruler (now we know where that ‘antique land’ was), whose empire crumbled to dust long ago. The declaration ‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ is supposed to be triumphant, and originally was: when the statue was first built, people gazing at it were meant to look at the empire built by Rameses and be cowed into submission by its vastness and power. Others, too, who came afterwards, were meant to feel awe at the might of Ozymandias’ empire. But now, of course, as the traveller confides to the poem’s speaker, ‘nothing beside remains’: the ‘works’ the statue’s inscription refers to (‘Look on my works’) have not lasted. Nothing does: all things must pass. So, unbeknownst to Ozymandias when he had those words inscribed, we have another reason to ‘despair’: the transience of all things. We despair now not at the might of his empire, but at the fact that such a mighty empire – even the mightiest of all – is destined to crumble to dust. Over a century before T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Shelley presents a land laid waste and a pessimistic view of human civilisation. ‘Ozymandias’ displays the same self-analysis at the level of whole civilisations: will our own survive, when this one did not?
In terms of its form, the poem is innovative and worthy of closer analysis: its fourteen lines and iambic metre mark it out as a sonnet, but its rhyme scheme is different from the traditional English or Italian sonnet. Shelley’s poem rhymes ababacdcedefef. The rhyme of ‘appear’ with ‘despair’ is a masterstroke: ‘despair’ also chimes with ‘appear’ by summoning that verb’s ghostly opposite, ‘disappear’ – exactly what has happened to Ozymandias’ vast empire, and decidedly apt given that ‘disappear’ itself doesn’t actually appear in the poem.
‘Ozymandias’ is rightly celebrated and often anthologised and analysed, but what is less well-known is that Shelley wrote the poem in competition with his friend, Horace Smith. (Smith’s effort was published in the same magazine a month after Shelley’s.) Smith originally titled his poem ‘Ozymandias’, the same as Shelley’s, though he subsequently renamed it ‘On A Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below’ – which is rather less catchy or memorable as titles go. Smith’s poem doesn’t repay the same close analysis as Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, but it’s worth a read:
In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert 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.
We wonder,—and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
Not up to Shelley’s standard, perhaps – but not a bad effort. Ozymandias’ empire may have gone, but the poem written in his name has endured. In the last analysis, Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ is a fine reminder that everything – even mighty empires – is doomed to fall to dust.
For more close analysis of Romantic poetry, check out our analysis of Keats’s ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ and Wordsworth’s classic daffodils poem.
Image: Ozymandias by alexzakil, on deviantart (Creative Commons).