A staunch advocate of personal liberty, Percy Bysshe Shelly strongly despised tyranny exercised either by government or by church. All his major poems including Prometheus Unbound, Queen Mab and The Revolt of Islam are testimonies to his advocacy of personal freedom, social reform and his condemnation of tyranny in any form.
Around 1818, when this poem was first published, there was great public excitement as ancient Egyptian monuments and sculptures were being brought to England.
Among them the most famous was the colossus of Ramses II also called Ozymandias. Shelley and his friend, Horace Smith, wrote sonnets on the same subject matter in a playful poetry contest.
Ozymandias was a military ruler who loved to erect his statues around his empire. To Shelley, he represented a vainglorious monarch who was drunk with power. He stood for what he loathed the most.
Throughout his empire, Ozymandias would get his statues erected in order to enforce his supremacy and instill a sense of fear and respect among his subjects. So, more than spending time and royal treasury in public welfare projects, he would commission his statues to be put up all around as a symbol of his might.
On the pedestal of the statue, he got engraved the following line,
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
It’s highly ironical. All that he was proud of has disappeared from the earth. His flourishing empire has been replaced with a barren desert. Nobody lives to praise him or his work, nor does anybody fears and respects him.
The irony is none of his “Works” exists any more for anybody to “look on.” The only remnant is the wreckage of his giant statue.
Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies
Lying in utter neglect, the dilapidated statue of the mighty and conceited king is the testimony to the fact that history doesn't revere and glorify those who misuse power to tyrannize others and indulge in self-pride.