"Look on my works ye mighty and despair." What does this line from "Ozymandias" mean?

This line from "Ozymandias" was meant to convey Ozymandias's awesome power and is a boastful message to other rulers, who will witness his impressive statue and despair at the sight of his greatness. Given the current ruined condition of the decaying statue, the message takes on another meaning. The boastful message ironically invites other powerful men to observe the "colossal wreck" and despair at their own legacies and material works, which will eventually succumb to time and the natural environment.

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Any person who sees this statue of Ozymandias, the so-called “King of Kings,” is meant to read this line engraved on the statue’s pedestal and imagine it being spoken by Ozymandias, the man depicted in stone, himself. It is as though Ozymandias commands the viewer, however “mighty” or powerful they might be themselves, to consider all that Ozymandias has accomplished during his reign and “despair” of ever having the same impact or influence that he has had.

In other words, the line declares it impossible for another king to have had the same amount of power or influence over those he rules. It is basically a boast; Ozymandias says to the viewer, I am more powerful, greater, and have accomplished more than you have or ever will. In fact, in styling himself the “King of Kings,” Ozymandias lays claim to the title of ruler of all rulers, most powerful of the most powerful; he declares that he is the mightiest king of all.

The irony, of course, is that this statue is broken apart and found mostly buried in the desert sand. Thus, even the power of this once-great king can be forgotten, literally and figuratively lost in the sands of time. Glory is fleeting, and such pride is misplaced.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on December 8, 2020
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This bold, audacious line is written on the pedestal of Ozymandias's statue and was meant to convey the king's omnipotence, intimidate other powerful rulers, and praise his notable accomplishments. However, the natural elements of the desert and time have taken a toll on the statue, which is nothing more than a "shattered visage" and "trunkless legs of stone" buried in the sand. Ozymandias's grand statue is nothing more than a "colossal wreck" lost in the desert, which makes the boastful message inscribed on the pedestal hollow and empty.

There is also a second meaning to this phrase, which can be interpreted as a warning to other "mighty" rulers that their legacy, individual achievements, and material works will also disappear in time. The proud message on the pedestal becomes ironic when other accomplished men observe the ruins and despair at what the future holds. When visitors perceive the decaying statue, they are reminded of their own impermanence and recognize the ephemeral nature of life, political rule, and personal legacy.

This line also underscores Shelley's primary themes concerning the transience of glory and the illusion of power. The great Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II had this statue commissioned to celebrate his glory and intimidate other mighty rulers. He thought that his legacy and reputation would be eternal, and future generations would celebrate his glory and praise his reign. However, the natural elements and time have destroyed the material evidence of his rule, and all that remains is a decaying structure in the middle of an endless desert. Ozymandias's statue serves as a warning to other powerful despots that their legacies will someday vanish from the earth and nature, time, and space are the only constants in life.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on December 8, 2020
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"Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

Basically, this line has two meanings. The literal meaning is "Look at all my great accomplishments, and envy me, because even if you think of yourself as mighty, you’ll never be as great as I am!" The subtle, ironic meaning is: "Look at how all of my great accomplishments have crumbled away into nothingness, and feel sad and hopeless, because even if you’re mighty, the same thing will happen to you after you’ve died!"

The line we’re talking about appears in the poem "Ozymandias," specifically near the end, at the climax (the most exciting part).

Let’s recall what’s going on in that poem. The speaker of the poem reports a story he heard from a "traveller" (line 1). This "traveller" remembers what he saw while visiting a desert in "an antique land" (line 1). It’s the broken and "shattered" (line 4) statue of some king named Ozymandias. The statue’s pedestal bears an inscription, which we read in lines 10–11:

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

The inscription is telling everyone to look at his "works," whatever they are—maybe glorious buildings, or maybe more statues. But here’s the twist. There’s nothing to look at. There are no "works" in sight, just the "boundless and bare" sands of the desert (line 13). Even the statue itself is a decaying "wreck" (line 13).

As you can see, the words the king says in line 11 are ambiguous: that is, we can interpret them in two different ways, both of which are valid. The poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, most likely rendered this line ambiguous on purpose. It makes the poem intriguing. It makes the reader think, "Wait—I’m sure the great king, the one who called himself 'king of kings' (line 10) just meant to boast and brag when he talked about his works, and he made sure that the sculptor carved those boastful words into his statue…but now, so much time has gone by that his words have a completely different meaning. A meaning that the king didn’t intend at all! That's ironic."

Even more than ironic, line 11 is chilling. It suggests to readers that, after our inevitable deaths, and after the inevitable passage of time, not only will our accomplishments fade away into oblivion, but even the meaning of our words can warp. We die. Our "works" die. Even our words die. The poem, chiefly through line 11, implies that this bitter truth applies to even the mighty, even a king, even a "king of kings."

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