Critically analyze each line of Shelley's "Ozymandias."

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In the first line of Shelley's Italian sonnet, "Ozymandias," the speaker relates that he has run into a traveler from a very old country or province:

I met a traveller from an antique land...

The men strike up a conversation and the stranger describes a statue that he found that was in ruin. In the next seven lines (of the sonnet's eight-line octave), the speaker conveys what he heard: that a statue was broken in pieces in the sand. While the large stone legs (bearing no torso) still stood...

...Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert....

...some distance away was the broken face of the statue.

...Near them on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies...

Then the traveler conveys the skill of the sculptor, for he was able to (seemingly) capture the essence of the man adeptly and accurately. The traveler gives the sense that the sculptor was so gifted in clearly portraying the subject of the statue, even to the point of sharing his attitudes, that his hand did less than praise the egotistical Ramses II, but instead mocked him by portraying him so accurately with his "sneer" and "frown." 

...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.

Note the use of the word "mocked:"

...by Shelley's day the current sense [of "mock"] "to ridicule"...had come to the fore.

I take "the heart that fed" to mean that while the sculptor achieved perhaps the mirror image of this pompous, egotistical Egyptian ruler, the pharaoh himself would have been so full of himself, that the image would have fed his heart, or his ego.

Basically, for all the power that Ramses II had during life, he—like the statue—did not last...nor did his power or his dynasty. This ends the first section of the sonnet, the octave. Shelley has presented the statue's description and with it, a sense of the kind of man he was in life.

In the last six lines (the sestet), the author brings the sonnet to its conclusion. First he shares the inscription at the base of the statue:

'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'

The sculptor's skill in capturing the leader's features, as well as this inscription...

...captur[e] the vanity and self-importance of its subject.

The contrast between the statement and the traveler's description of what he saw is obvious. This man, "Ozymandias," believed that he was all-powerful. However, in the end, nothing is left around the broken statue, and the statue's enormous remnants are described as decaying. There is no kingdom there; beyond this "junk," no other sign that this pharaoh ever lived remains as far as the eye can see:

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away... 

Sources:

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