In "Ozymandias," what does the expression on the face of the sculpture convey about the king's personality?

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We are told in the poem that the face of the sculpture is marked by a "frown, / And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command." In isolation this description suggests that the king or, more precisely, the pharaoh (Shelley was reputedly writing about Rameses II, an Egyptian pharaoh who...

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We are told in the poem that the face of the sculpture is marked by a "frown, / And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command." In isolation this description suggests that the king or, more precisely, the pharaoh (Shelley was reputedly writing about Rameses II, an Egyptian pharaoh who reigned from 1279 to 1213 BCE), is contemptuous and mocking (implied by "sneer"), disapproving (implied by "frown"), and perhaps emotionally distant (implied by "cold"). We can assume that he is contemptuous and disapproving of, and emotionally distant from, the people over whom he reigns. Altogether these images also create the impression of someone with a degree of arrogance and disdain for the mere mortals that he looks down upon, and the alliteration of "cold command" creates a harsh, forceful tone which emphasizes and complements these characteristics. There is also a sense, in the lines quoted above (whose frown...command") that Shelley wants to draw out each individual descriptive detail. Each detail (the frown, the lip, and the sneer) is given its own clause ending in a comma, the comma producing a slight pause in which the preceding image can sink in fully to the reader's imagination. There is also, with the repetition of "And" which links the three clauses, a cumulative effect—each negative detail is compounded by another, and another.

As well as considering these descriptions in isolation, it's also important to consider how they resonate in the context of the whole poem. If we read these lines in isolation, we have an impression of a fairly appalling, unlikeable figure, but when we appreciate that this cold, sneering visage (face) lies "shattered" and "Half sunk" in a vast, empty desert ("Nothing beside remains...The lone and level sands stretch far away"), then this figure actually becomes rather pathetic. If the sheer size of the statue ("vast...colossal") represents the figure's ego or pride, then the fact that it has crumbled and now lies broken represents how meaningless this pride is in the grand scheme of things. This links to a significant characteristic common to the literature of Romantic poets like Shelley, namely the idea that man is insignificant and trivial relative to the vastness and timelessness of the natural world. In literary terms, Ozymandias here is a descendent of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun; of Adam and Eve, who covered up their nakedness with fig leaves; of Frankenstein (from the novel written by the poet's wife, Mary Shelley), who believed he could play God by creating life. He, like them, was guilty of too much pride, and he, like them, was drained of life ("these lifeless things") and brought crashing back down to earth—in his case, literally.

All in all then, taken in isolation, the expression on the face of the sculpture suggests an arrogant, distant, and disdainful figure. When considered in the context of the whole poem, however, these descriptions become almost ridiculous in their seriousness and arrogance, and they take on a certain, maybe deserved tragedy, and Ozymandias is reduced, or possibly elevated, to another reminder of the dangers of excessive pride in a world where mankind is but a trivial, tiny, inconsequential mark.

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First, what we have is a poet's retelling of a traveler's account (actually Diodorus Siculus, an historian, not a traveler) of a sculptor's vision of Ozymandias, and thus we are only getting a sense of what layered narrators want to convey about the personality of Ramesses II; as the pharaoh in question died some 1000 years before Diodorus wrote his history and nearly 3,000 years before Shelley wrote the poem, we can only derive information about the character of the pharaoh as portrayed in the poem, not his actual historical character. 

The poem describes the expression on the head of the sculpture as follows:

...a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command...

The word "frown" makes the readers assume that the model had a harsh, perhaps angry, disposition as does the phrase "wrinkled lip" which evokes sneering. The words "cold command" suggest a powerful autocrat who is emotionally cold and lacking empathy. 

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