Ozymandias, also known as Ramses II, is thought to be the one of most powerful pharaohs of the Egyptian empire. The discovery of his sphinx in 1798 had an immediate influence on the European imagination. A Greek historian Diodorus Siculus has translated the inscription carved on the pedestal of the ancient statue as, “King of Kings Ozymandias am I. Should any man seek to know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works.”
In 1798 when the statue was excavated, Shelley found it to be a perfect subject matter for his poem through which he was to vent his feelings against the rule of tyranny. With his imagination, he colored up the facts of the recent discovery and composed this excellent piece, Ozymandias.
The transient nature of human existence and material possessions have been few of the most popular themes among poets of all ages. Shelley makes the best use of this theme to describe the ironical fate of tyrannical rulers.
Ozymandias is believed to have erected his colossal statues more than any other Egyptian king. He loved to demonstrate his strength and power in order to awe his peers and his people.
In the poem, the mammoth statue of the vain king lies in a dilapidated state. Its “shattered visage” is “half sunk” on the sand while its “two vast and trunkless legs of stone / Stand in the desert.” This is what is left of the so-called greatest king who got the following words carved in the pedestal of his giant statue:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
There’s a biting irony in these lines. The once extensive and great empire of Ozymandias is non-existent today. What remains of Ozymandias’s possessions is his ruined statue biting the dust in an uninhabited land; yet the face still wears its “frown” and “sneer of cold command.” Moreover, the barren desert has replaced his so called great “Works’’ and empire.
Shelley’s message is clear and direct. Every tyrannical ruler is fated to go down in history like Ozymandias. Those who live with the sole objective to become the most powerful and greatest will be forgotten as non-entities by posterity. Tyrants and oppressors have never passed the test of time. It’s art that survives much longer. In the sculpture of Ozymandias itself, it is art that has outlasted the power and influence of the supposed mightiest ruler on the earth.