Ozymandias Summary

Introduction

The poem’s narrator presents the reader with a stunning vision of the tomb of Ozymandias, another name for Rameses II, King of Egypt during the 13th century B.C. Shelley emphasizes that to a modern viewer this tomb tells quite a different tale than that which Ozymandias had hoped it would. The king evidently commissioned a sculptor to create an enormous sphinx to represent his enduring power, but the traveler comes across only a broken heap of stones ravaged by time.

Enough of the original monument exists to allow Shelley a moment of triumph over the thwarted plans of the ruler. The face of Ozymandias is still recognizable, but it is “shattered,” and, though his “sneer of cold command” persists, it is obvious that he no longer commands anyone or anything. The vaunting words carved into the stone pedestal can still be read: “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Yet he is to be pitied, if not disdained, rather than held in awe and fear: The broken-down tomb is set in a vast wasteland of sand, perhaps Shelley’s way of suggesting that all tyrants ultimately end up in the only kind of kingdom they deserve, a barren desert.

Shelley’s sonnet, however, would not be the great poem it surely is if it were only a bit of political satire. The irony of “Ozymandias” cuts much deeper as the reader realizes that the forces of mortality and mutability, described brilliantly in the concluding lines, will erode and destroy all our lives. There is a special justice in the way tyrants are subject to time, but all humans face death and decay. The poem remains primarily an ironic and compelling critique of Ozymandias and other rulers like him, but it is also a striking meditation on time-bound humanity: the traveler in the ancient land, the sculptor-artist who fashioned the tomb, and the reader of the poem, no less than Ozymandias, inhabit a world that is “boundless and bare.”

Ozymandias Summary (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Ozymandias” is a sonnet composed by the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and named for its subject, with the Greek name of the Egyptian king Ramses II, who died in 1234 b.c.e. The poem follows the traditional structure of the fourteen-line Italian sonnet, featuring an opening octave, or set of eight lines, that presents a conflict or dilemma, followed by a sestet, or set of six lines, that offers some resolution or commentary upon the proposition introduced in the octave.

The poem is conventionally written in iambic pentameter (that is, ten syllables per line of coupled unstressed then stressed sounds), so the poem’s subject matter is framed both by the structural and metrical constraints chosen by the poet.

The first-person narrator of “Ozymandias” introduces a conversation he has chanced to have with a “traveller from an antique land” in line 1. The reader knows neither the identity of the traveler nor the circumstances wherein the poet has encountered the traveler but may assume he is a source of information about a strange and unfamiliar world.

The remaining thirteen lines of the poem quote verbatim the tale that the traveler has borne from his trek into the desert. The intrepid explorer has encountered “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone,” the vestiges of a statue in disrepair whose head lay as a “shattered visage” nearby. Despite its broken state, the “frown,” the “wrinkled lip” and “sneer of cold command” of the statue’s face bespeak its sculptor’s skill in capturing the vanity and self-importance of its subject.

The traveler remarks that the artist has “well those passions read which yet survive”—that is, those indications of the subject’s character, indelibly “stamped onlifeless things”: “the hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed.”

The octave thus confronts the reader in its first movement with an ironic portrait of an ancient monarch whose fame and stature have been immortalized in a static gaze that connotes paradoxically both celebrity and dissolution. In the revelatory sestet which follows, the poet posits, through the testimony of the traveler, the fate of vainglorious men. On the pedestal, he finds written the great man’s empty boast: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,/ Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Yet “Nothing beside remains” but ruin, a “colossal Wreck, boundless and bare” against the lonely landscape of sand and cruel, penetrating sunlight. A double irony is at work; neither the great man nor the work of the artist remains in credible shape to challenge or delight the imagination of those who would encounter it. King and artisan, mover and maker, share the same destiny. The poem ends with the reader/observer’s gaze fixed upon this pathetic legacy, contemplating his own mortality.