The Meaning and Origin of ‘Look on My Works Ye Mighty and Despair!’

‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ These words are recognisable to many people who are unaware of the poem in which they originate.

Published in The Examiner on 11 January 1818, ‘Ozymandias’ is perhaps Percy Bysshe Shelley’s most celebrated and best-known poem. And we find the famous line ‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ in this poem, which is a sonnet inspired by an ancient Egyptian ruler.

There are several speakers in the poem: three, in fact (in a sense). There is the speaker who speaks to us, telling us how he met a traveller in an ‘antique land’ (later we’ll be able to deduce it’s ancient Egypt). This traveller – who becomes the second speaker of the poem – 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. Clearly the statue was erected in honour of some mighty ruler, as the inscription on the pedestal at the foot of the statue reveals:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

The inscription ‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ is ironic, for reasons which are worth analysing. They are inscribed rather than spoken, but in a sense, the words ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ give us a third speaker within this short poem.

Who was Ozymandias? Ozymandias was the Greek name for Rameses II, an Egyptian ruler 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. The statue seems to be saying to any ‘Mighty’ rival emperor who might be tempted to try and invade Rameses’ kingdom: look around you at everything I, Rameses II, have built, and despair of ever vanquishing me or the empire I have made! The grandeur of his kingdom will never be matched, and they should despair of ever trying to equal it.

Others, too – future ‘Mighty’ emperors and kings who came afterwards – were meant to feel awe at the might of Ozymandias’ empire, as the durable statue, which outlived Rameses himself, is designed to convey.

But ‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ becomes ironic after the long passage of time between Rameses’ own day (he died in around 1200 BC, so several centuries even before Homer was writing) and Shelley’s, in 1819, some three millennia later. Now the reader of that inscription has a different reason to ‘despair’ when they ‘look on’ Ozymandias/Rameses’ works. Because those ‘works’ have all vanished. Even the statue built in praise of him is ‘trunkless’: it’s lost its body, with only the ‘legs of stone’ and the face or ‘visage’ – itself now ‘shattered’ – remaining.

The poem concludes by returning to the voice of the original speaker:

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

Nothing lasts forever: 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. Without realising, Ozymandias was showing his rivals that, no matter how great their dreams of conquest were, they would all go the same way as him and his mighty kingdom.

It is worth bearing in mind the context of ‘Ozymandias’. Shelley wrote the poem in 1817, not long after the British Museum announced that it had acquired a fragment of a statue of the Egyptian pharaoh Rameses II (his head and torso, to be exact). Shelley may well have heard of this acquisition and been motivated to write his sonnet about the pharaoh’s remains, although he ditched the statue’s torso and instead salvaged his legs from the ruins of time.

‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ has become famous not least because its meaning is cleverly two-sided: at once a piece of macho bravado from a mighty ruler, it is also a poignant reminder that all empires fade to nothing, until only a few remnants are left in the dust or desert sand.

One Comment

  1. I’ve always found this poem extremely impressive. It was part of a friendly competition and the parallel poem by Horace Smith (originally also title “Ozymandias”) is rather good. But it somehow feels very ordinary compared to Shelley’s version, which just goes to show how outstanding Shelley’s poem is.