Please provide a line-by-line explication of "Ozymandias"line to line explanation

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karaejacobi eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Ozymandias" is a famous sonnet by the British Romantic poet Percy Shelley. The poem is best known for its eleventh line, "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!" and for the ironic juxtaposition of this statement and the ruins with which it is paired. 

The poem begins with Shelley's narrator recalling that he met "a traveller from an ancient land." This traveller then narrates the remainder of the poem. The first part of the traveler's story reads,

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. (lines 2-8)

These lines describe a ruin that the traveller came upon in the desert. Its size and material are first described as "vast and trunkless legs of stone," but the next lines concentrate on the disheveled appearance of the statue. It is "half sunk," its face "shattered." The facial expression is described as one of "cold command," and the traveller interprets this as accurate when he says that the sculptor "well those passions read." This means that the artist understood the personality and temperament of the subject as exhibited by the statue's "visage." A contrast is employed when Shelley has the traveller say that "those passions" "yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things." This begins the juxtaposition that will continue and prove so important to the poem's central idea. Here, the contrast is between the lifelike accuracy of the face and the fact that it is sculpted from stone. The eighth line implies that the portrait is not exactly flattering, as "the hand" of the sculptor has "mocked" the ruler's features, while his "heart," or temperament, "fed" the expression or inspired it.

The remaining section of the poem introduces the ironic inscription on the statue's pedestal and elaborates upon the contrast between the powerful expression on the face of the statue and its current state of ruin. The lines read,

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.

The statue's subject is revealed here, "Ozymandias, King of Kings." The latter qualifier subtly refers to Ozymandias's inflated concept of his own power and position. He then tells anyone who would view his monument to "look on [his] works . . . and despair." He believes that his accomplishments will continue to impress everyone to come upon them in the future; he believes that his legacy will strike fear into the hearts of all passersby. He is wrong, of course, as the traveller points out that this inscription and its accompanying sculpture are surrounded by "decay" and are now nothing but a "colossal wreck." The pairing of the words "boundless and bare" is another example of juxtaposition, which amplifies the lack of meaning that remains in this ruin. The "boundless" and "lone and level sands" go on as far as the eye can see, while Ozymandias's power has no reach and no range. This is the central irony of the poem: the king's perception of his own power is now mocked by its ruined state amidst the desert landscape.

Stephen Holliday eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The poem begins with the narrator meeting an anonymous man who has seen some ruins in the desert of an "antique land," and tells the narrator that he's seen two huge legs, without a body attached, standing by themselves in the desert.

Near the legs lies a "shattered visage," that is, the broken face of the statue, but there is enough of the face to see that the person who was the model for this sculpture had "a wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command"--in other words, we are meant to understand that this broken statue is of a man who once was obviously a powerful ruler with not just a commanding expression but an unfeeling expression.

An important detail in the narrator's tale is that the sculptor knew his subject well and was able to capture the essence of the once powerful king.

The last five lines are the heart of this poem.  On the pedestal is the King's boast to the world--"Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair"--and this is the point at which the irony of the poem becomes clear.  The traveller then explains that the "colossal wreck" of the statue is sitting in the middle of the desert, with nothing but sand in all directions.

The irony of Ozymandias' boast is that pride, vanity, strength,  and the illusion of permanence are transitory and ephemeral--these things simply disappear into the sand, and what remains are just fragments of a once powerful king.

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Ozymandias

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