Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822) first published "Ozymandias" in the 11 January 1818 issue of The Examiner and included it in his book-length collection of poems Rosalind and Helen, A Modern Eclogue; with Other Poems in 1819.
The title of the poem "Ozymandias" is the Greek name for the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses (sometimes spelled Ramses) II, also known as Ramesses the Great (c. 1303 BCE – 1213 BCE). He was the third pharaoh of the Egyptian Nineteenth Dynasty and reigned from 1279 to 1213 BCE. He was the most important ruler of the period known as the New Kingdom and notable for his many military victories, his building numerous extravagant monuments and temples, and his bringing Egypt into a period of great prosperity and power. Shelley would have been familiar with him under the name Ozymandias from The Histories of Herodotus (c. 484 – c. 425 BCE), an ancient Greek historian who visited Egypt and told of his travels there and the various historical accounts given by Egyptians as he toured notable monuments. Herodotus was a standard school text in Shelley's period, and Shelley would have read it in the original Greek, which is why he uses the Greek version of the pharaoh's name. The direct inspiration for the poem was the work of another Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus (fl. 1st century BCE) who describes a monumental statue with the inscription in his Bibliotheca historica:
King of Kings am I, Ozymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works.
In the late eighteenth century, Napoleon invaded Egypt, leading to a dramatic rise in interest in Egyptian archaeology among Europeans. The British Museum had acquired a large statue of Ozymandias shortly before the poem was written, and it was in the process of being shipped to England when the poem was published. Thus the poem is not just historical but reflects what were current events.
"Ozymandias" is written in the form of a sonnet, a fourteen-line poem using regular meter and end-rhymes. The rhythmical pattern of the poem is iambic pentameter, meaning that each line consists of five iambic feet, with an iambic foot being an unstressed followed by a stressed syllable. The rhyme scheme is somewhat irregular. Structurally, the poem has the surprising twist in the final two lines normally associated with the Shakespearean sonnet, but the rhyme scheme is closer to the Italian form. The rhyme scheme can be represented as abab acdc ede fef.
Although the work uses occasional forms of specific poetic diction, such as the inverted syntax of the line "its sculptor well those passions read," the vocabulary and diction tend to be simple and direct. The language generally eschews metaphor but does use devices such as alliteration, as exemplified in the phrases "cold command" and "boundless and bare."
Little detail is given about the first-person narrator of the poem. The narrator encounters a traveler who visited Egypt, and the body of the poem is a quotation, consisting of what the traveler told the narrator. This sort of framing was typical of fiction and exotic tales in Shelley's period, with the framing used to give stories verisimilitude. The lack of information about narrator and traveler keeps the focus of the poem centered on the statue and the way modern people might encounter the past rather than the specific experiences of a narrator.
Generically, this is often described as a "monument" poem, a genre originating in Horace's Odes III: XXX (23 BCE), in which the poet states of his work:
I have built a monument more lasting than bronze,
higher than the Pyramids’ regal structures,
that no consuming rain, nor wild north wind
can destroy . . .
Also using the sonnet form is another monument poem, William Shakespeare's Sonnet 59, which begins:
Not marble nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme . . .
In Shelley's poem, readers encounter a similar vision of a colossal monument of the greatest of the Egyptian pharaohs which is crumbling...
(The entire section is 1,334 words.)