What does the condition of the statue symbolize?

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Stephen Holliday | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Contrary to popular misconceptions about the composition of "Ozymandias"--that Shelley saw the statue of Ramses II at the British Museum and was compelled to write a poem about it--Shelley and his friend Leigh Hunt decided to have a sonnet writing competition in late 1817, and Shelley's sonnet "Ozymandias" is the one we remember.

The sonnet's setting, "an antique land," is a staple of Romantic Period poets, who are drawn to exotic, far away settings, in this case, somewhere in Egypt where the narrator,  in the middle of a desert, encounters  the remains of a once imposing statue and describes the scene to the poet:

'Two vast and trunkless legs of stone/Stand in the desert.  Near them on the sand,/Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown/And Wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command. . . .'

Clearly, the statue is monumental but, more important, completely wrecked--the legs are still recognizable, as is the face, but the body is nowhere to be seen.  The face, however, has been sculpted so accurately and artfully that the commanding features--a "Wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command"--still reflect the power wielded by the statue's subject, who, at this point, is unnamed.

When the narrator describes the inscription on the pedestal, we finally identify the statue's subject, King Ramses II of Egypt, arguably the most powerful Pharaoh, certainly the greatest monument builder, in early Egyptian history:

'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.'/Nothing beside remains.  Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,/The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Ozymandias' (the Greek name for Ramses) inscription underscores his supreme power, so much power, in fact, that he essentially tells other men of power that nothing they can do or build will equal his accomplishments.  The irony, of course, is that Ramses and all his "everlasting" monuments are gone, scattered in pieces in some lonely and remote desert, "boundless and bare."

Shelley is making a political statement in this sonnet.  By depicting such a powerful ruler as Ozymandias in ruins, Shelley uses Ozymandias and his monuments as the symbol of life and power's transience.  Like all else in life, everything that man does, no matter how powerful the man, is subject to decay--men die, even statues deteriorate and are forgotten, and governments fall and are replaced by new governments.  Power lasts only as long as the person or government that exercises power--perhaps for years, even decades, but not forever.

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