Why was "Ozymandias" written?

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Throughout his life and career, Shelley was a political radical, a strong opponent of the Establishment into which he had been born. In particular, he was no respecter of kings, as his support for the republican cause in his native Britain illustrates. "Ozymandias " can be seen, then, as...

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Throughout his life and career, Shelley was a political radical, a strong opponent of the Establishment into which he had been born. In particular, he was no respecter of kings, as his support for the republican cause in his native Britain illustrates. "Ozymandias" can be seen, then, as an expression of Shelley's contempt for monarchs and all their worldly pretensions. Ozymandias saw himself as a great pharaoh, whose name and earthly achievements would live on indefinitely. Yet he, like everyone else, eventually passed away; and the statue he erected as a monument to his own greatness now lies crumbling in the sands of the desert.

Even in Shelley's day, even in the wake of the French Revolution, many kings and queens believed that they had the God-given right to rule. They too believed like Ozymandias that their names were destined to live on for all eternity. But Shelley wishes to remind them in no uncertain terms of their mortality and how true greatness does not reside in one's titles or public monuments, but in the heart and in the soul.

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Shelley wrote "Ozymandias" for several reasons. First, the poem was inspired by the arrival in England of a portion of a statue of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II. Shelley wanted to commemorate that event and was spurred on as well by a friendly rivalry with the poet Horace Smith. Smith also wrote a poem about the statue at the same time as Shelley, and he also called it "Ozymandias." 

As a radical who had supported the French Revolution, Shelley used the poem as a commentary on tyranny. In the poem, Ozymandias understands himself as as invincible tyrant, and imagines all who see his mighty kingdom and mighty statue tremble with fear. However, Shelley ironically shows the statue as a wrecked ruin strewn across an empty desert. Ozymandias' once powerful kingdom has disappeared. The statue's inscription--'Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'--thus has a double meaning. Seeing now the ruin of Ozymandias' works, the "mighty" might despair by realizing even the most powerful tyrannies become nothing. 

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