In "Ozymandias," the remains of a massive and imposing statue of the imperious titular king are strewn about in a barren desert. Years earlier, the ruler ordered a sculptor to create his likeness for posterity. The statue’s pedestal states,
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
The poem’s situational irony is that this self-aggrandizing monarch who bragged of peerless rule over lands no longer possesses any power. Filled with hubris, the epitaph boasts of significant achievements that are supposed to make any observer feel “despair” or inferiority. For anyone reading it, the inscription sets up expectations of greatness and dominance. It is a command like “read ‘em and weep!”
Instead, the visual images that confront the speaker comically undercut the fallen ruler’s words. If a reader can visualize the scene as the speaker describes it, the reader would see
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,
The statue of the frightful tyrant is broken into disembodied body parts, which are scattered about. King Ozymandias’s torso is missing, leaving large but ultimately helpless legs stranded. A few feet away, the king’s head is partially buried; all the speaker can see (and the reader visualize) is a broken face with a cruel frown, curled lip, and petulant expression. He is disabled and impotent; his image is deflated.
King Ozymandias’s bluster is empty; neither his power nor his self-ordered monument can survive natural forces and passing time. In the end, the symbol of his vain glory is reduced to a “colossal Wreck” stripped of any ornamentation and honor; it is half-covered with “lone and level sands” in the middle of nowhere. No one comes to pay the monarch any respects.
King Ozymandias’s pathetic, crumbled statue calls to mind the ending of the 1968 film Planet of the Apes. The protagonist finds the Statue of Liberty nearly buried in sand on a beach; only the upper torso, crowned head, and torch-bearing arm of Lady Liberty are visible. Horrified, the protagonist curses the hubris of mankind for unleashing a nuclear war that ultimately destroys the world. Similarly, the remains of King Ozymandias signify how one man’s arrogance may have led to his own downfall.