Ozymandias Summary

Ozymandias” is a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley that describes the ruins of a statue of Rameses II, also known as Ozymandias. 

  • The poem’s speaker meets a traveler who tells him about a ruined statue in the desert of an “antique land.”
  • The pharaoh’s sculpted face wears a “sneer of cold command,” and the broken statue’s pedestal reads, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: / Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
  • Though the statue was intended to memorialize the pharaoh’s greatness, it is now just a “colossal Wreck” in an empty desert.

Summary

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Last Updated on June 25, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 667

Introduction

“Ozymandias” by Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was composed in 1817 as part of a sonnet competition with a friend, Horace Smith. The poem is thought to have been influenced by the British Museum’s acquisition of a fragmentary bust from a massive statue of Rameses II. Shelley first published “Ozymandias” in a London journal in 1818.

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Summary

Shelley structures “Ozymandias” as two closely related narratives. Most of the poem is composed of a quotation from someone the speaker of the first two lines claims to have met, a “traveller from an antique land.” The speaker does not specify the place where he met the “traveller,” though the phrasing suggests that the place is associated with the past or that the author of a written history is being cited. Alternately, the “antique land” might no longer exist, which suggests the displacement of the quoted speaker.

The beginning of the quoted story is a description of two huge stone legs and another part of a statue, located in “the desert” and “on the sand”; at the poem’s end, the desert setting will be emphasized with another reference to “sands.” Lines 2 through 5 are occupied with the description of the statue’s fragments, and the description itself is likewise fragmentary. The speaker calls the statue’s legs “vast and trunkless,” by which he means that the legs are no longer attached to the statue’s torso; nearby, “Half sunk a shattered visage”—the statue’s face—“lies.” The description of the face as “shattered” might indicate that there are multiple fragments or that the stone is cracked. The traveler describes the face’s “frown, / And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command.”

In the next several lines, the traveler moves into speculation based on his interpretation of the statue’s expression and “vast” size. The “frown,” “wrinkled lip,” and “sneer” rendered on the statue’s face, the traveler says,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed . . .

Here, the subject under consideration is expanded from the singular image of the statue itself to the talented sculptor who created it. This artist understood the bitter emotions of the person depicted and “stamped” them onto the stone. Even now, the sculptor’s understanding of his subject’s cruelties survives long past the sculptor himself.

The traveler then describes the statue’s “pedestal,” which is also present in the scene, presumably beneath the legs. On this pedestal, he says, “words appear”—a phrasing which indicates not only the movement of the eye (from legs to head to pedestal) but also mirrors the way the words may have been uncovered or unearthed from the sand. The words read,

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Here, Shelley introduces a third voice to the poem: that of Ozymandias, the statue’s subject. Ozymandias is the Greek transliteration of the name of pharaoh Rameses II, who ruled as part of the Nineteenth Dynasty of Ancient Egypt. The effect of the quotation is to encourage the reader to imagine that they are hearing the vanished pharaoh’s voice. The pharaoh’s claim to immortality and eternal power, however, is undercut by the fragmentation and isolation of what remains of his statue.

Just after recounting the words of the pharaoh’s pedestal, the traveler says,

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

He indicates that no such “works” as the pharaoh boasts of remain—not even to be looked at, much less to cause anyone to despair or lament their own lack of power. The “colossal Wreck” of both the pharaoh’s statue and his kingdom are juxtaposed with the expanse and emptiness of the desert setting. The sands are “boundless and bare,” “lone and level,” and their expanse is broken by “Nothing” but the “decay” of the pharaoh’s onetime empire.

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Themes