What is the message of Shelley's poem "Ozymandias"?

Quick answer:

Overall, the message of Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ozymandias" is in the idea that power is temporary, even that of great rulers who may believe their power to be immortal.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The main message of Shelley's “Ozymandias” is that political power is not destined to last. It is temporal, not eternal, no matter how powerful or fearsome a particular ruler may be. Even the most ruthless dictators will one day die, and what they regarded as their eternal achievements will also eventually pass on.

Thousands of years ago, a powerful pharaoh by the name of Ozymandias thought that his works would last forever. But in actual fact, he's left nothing behind to indicate the enormous power he must have exercised in his lifetime. All that's left to show that he even existed is a decaying statue of himself that's crumbling into the sands of the desert.

Shelley was a political radical and as such no respecter of powerful rulers. In presenting a stark picture of a pharaoh's crumbling statue, he wants to demystify the power of the ruling elite, to show people that it ultimately has no lasting foundations. Kings, queens, and pharaohs alike may want their subjects to think that they rule according to God's will, but in actual fact, they're just as human as the rest of us, no matter how high and mighty they may behave or how much power they seek to project.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Shelley uses irony to convey the message that the power of tyrants is fleeting and unstable. Tyrants may delude themselves that their kingdoms and power will last forever, but, in fact, this is not true.

To make his point, Shelley has the poem's speaker use the story of Ozymandias, an ancient ruler. The speaker has met a traveler who tells him of going to an "antique" or ancient land. There, amid a vast desert that spreads out as far as the eye can see, the traveler finds a broken statue of a once mighty, sneering king named Ozymandias. The statue has written on its pedestal the words

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
The words are ironic, because all of Ozymandias's "Works" are gone, except for his shattered statue. His kingdom is completely lost. The "despair" the mighty should feel is not that Ozymandias is too powerful to dare to contest. Instead, the despair—and warning—to tyrants is that all despots come to the same humiliating end.
Shelley was a radical for his era in that he believed in republicanism and democracy (the governmental form of many, if not most, nations today) rather than monarchy at a time when monarchy was dominant. The poem is cautionary, sending the message to the great that they are not as powerful and invincible as they think.
Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The meaning or themes of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” are fairly straightforward and are also highly traditional. Basically, the poem reminds powerful people that their power is only temporary. However much powerful people may wish to think that their power is immortal, they are only deceiving themselves. Earthly power is mutable, and indeed all human beings (Shelley may imply) need to remember this lesson.

What makes all these meanings highly memorable, of course, are the techniques Shelley uses, including the following:

  • The speaker of the poem doesn’t himself preach; instead, he merely quotes the words of another person (the "traveller"), so that we are more likely to listen and consider the opinions the poem expresses. The speaker himself does not come across as a mere propagandist; rather, he presents himself as an honest reporter.
  • Although the poem has obvious relevance to (and implications for) powerful people of the present day, Shelley keeps it from seeming a mere piece of contemporary political propaganda by making it a lesson about powerful figures of the past.  Readers are more likely to listen to a general moral lesson than to a lesson that seems aimed at particular political targets of the present.
  • By keeping the poem short, Shelley gives it added impact and increases the likelihood that it will be read.  Few people have taken the time to read Shelley’s long political poems, but many, many readers have read and been moved by “Ozymandias.”
  • By presenting this message about mutability in the form of a sonnet, Shelley deals ironically with a genre often associated with love.  However, Shakespeare’s sonnet 55 is similar in various ways to Shelley’s poem, as are various political sonnets by Milton and Wordsworth.
  • Shelley uses extremely vivid and memorably imagery.  Rather than treating his topic in vague, abstract, or general terms, he creates highly specific images, as when the traveller describes a statue he has seen:

. . . “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert... Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things . . . (2-7)

  • Shelley uses irony when he lets Ozymandias speak for himself by reporting the inscription carved on the dead king’s crumbled statue:

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ (10-11)

  • Immediately after reporting these proud and now almost ridiculous words, the traveller merely observes: “Nothing besides remains” (12). Rather than spelling out the lesson for us, the traveller, the speaker, and Shelley all let us draw the obvious conclusions for ourselves. The poem thus shows respect for its readers' intelligence.
Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the meaning of the poem "Ozymandias?"

The meaning of "Ozymandias" is that any power or status one may have while alive will eventually crumble and be lost in the depths of history. One must die in the end. The pedestal demonstrates that Ozymandias called himself "King of Kings," a title generally reserved for the Judeo-Christian god. This shows how arrogant he was. His behavior, too, as ruler, was obviously cruel, since the sculptor portrayed his "sneer of cold command" and his hand as "mock[ing.]" The inscription claims immortality for Ozymandias's "Works," saying that they will make even the "Mighty" "despair." In the end, though, Ozymandias died, and his empire fell. Power on earth is transitory, and our focus should instead be on spiritual immortality, worshipping the true "King of Kings"—or so Shelley's poem implies.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the meaning of the poem "Ozymandias?"

"Ozymandias" by Shelley is about a narrator who encounters "a traveller from an antique land." The traveller tells the narrator about two enormous legs of a statue that stands in the desert, surrounded by a "shattered visage," or a battered face. On the face of this sculpture is a "sneer of cold command," meaning that the face on the sculpture is making a gesture that conveys disdain and mastery. The sculptor has captured the appearance and attitude of the subject. On the pedestal of the statue, Ozymandias, a leader of ancient Egypt, engraved the words "Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!" Yet all around the statue, nothing remains except sand and the ruins of the statue. 

The meaning of the poem is that Ozymandias, an ancient leader, thought he could control his land forever. However, time has made his statue fall into disrepair, showing that no one can control the vastness of the world and of nature. Instead, nature has made his remark seem ironic, as his statue has crumbled into a headless wreck. 

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What message does the poem, "Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley, convey?  

The poem actually presents more than one message.

Firstly, the poem emphasises the transient nature of existence. Time does not stand still and as it marches on, things change. All matter, irrespective of its nature, suffers from the ravages of time in some or other way. In the poem, this is illustrated by the change Ozymandias' colossal statue has undergone.

Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies,


Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The two extracts clearly indicate that the statue has undergone a transformation for the worse. When Ozymandias had this monument built, he probably imagined that it would exist for all time. Its sheer size, he might have believed, would stand as a permanent testament of his power and achievement. Unfortunately for him, all that remains of his wondrous creation are the two massive legs of stone, a face and a pedestal - 'nothing beside remains.'

Added to this, the word 'decay' clearly indicates that the statue was unable to survive. The point is further emphasised by the very apt use of alliteration in 'boundless and bare' and 'lone and level sands.' The first reveals the vast emptiness of the desert, whilst the second serves as a metaphor for time, as in the phrase, 'the sands of time.'

Secondly, the poem mocks the foolish idealism of an arrogant and cold-hearted dictator. It is clear from the poem that Ozymandias was supercilious and uncaring as suggested by the lines:

...whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things

Ozymandias presented a stern visage and he had a sneering look about him. He looked down on his subjects and ruled with a cold heart. The sculptor had skilfully etched these into the sculpture. Added to this, Ozymandias had the arrogance to believe that his power would create fear in all who were exposed to him. The legend on the pedestal signifies his great vanity:

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'

The irony is that Ozymandias did not seem to realise that his power was limited. He would pass on and so would his power. Death is the great equaliser, but he thought he would survive beyond that, and ironically, he did not. All that remains of his greatness is this broken effigy now being critically spoken of by the speaker. The speaker is not in awe, neither is he in 'despair' for Ozymandias might has ceased to exist. It is quite ironic that the speaker expresses greater admiration for the skill of the sculptor than for the sculpted subject.

Ozymandias must have surely turned in his grave at this.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the theme of "Ozymandias" by Percy B. Shelley?

In my opinion, the theme of this poem is that human life and human accomplishments are transient.  It is saying that, in the long run, nothing we do matters.  It reminds me of a song from when I was a kid by the band "Styx."  The lyrics went

Nothing ever goes as planned/It's a hell of a notion/ Even pharaohs turn to sand/ like a drop in the ocean.

If you think about it, this is what has happened to Ozymandias.  He was so powerful in his day, but now his statues have fallen and no one knows his name.  What was once his empire is now a backwater -- an "antique land."  Everything that he worked for and accomplished has been forgotten -- his efforts were pointless.

The poem is implying that all of human life is like that.  Nothing we do will last...

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the moral of the poem "Ozymandias," by Percy Bysshe Shelly?

Ozymandias is the Greek name for the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II, who reigned from 1279-1213 BCE. Shelley quotes Ozymandias as saying, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings. / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” This is said in pride, warning anyone from thinking they could destroy him. Yet there are only ruins about the broken statue. His “works” have been obliterated, either by time or by an enemy. He is not invincible as he believed. The real warning is that all the “Mighty” should look on his works and take warning that, no matter how powerful they are, eventually they will lie in the dust, just as Ozymandias is. Their works will be destroyed. The warning is against hubris, the belief that one is not held accountable or subject to the laws of man, the laws of nature, or the laws of the gods.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the message of the sonnet "Ozymandias?"

I think the message of the sonnet "Ozymandias" is that no matter how great or powerful someone is in life, everyone dies and everyone's memory is eventually erased by the ravages of history.

In the second part of the sonnet, the six-line sestet, Shelley reveals this message. After the inscription, the words "Nothing beside remains" (line 12) tell the audience that there is nothing left of the once-great ruler. The massive statue is referred to as "decay" in line 12 and "Wreck" in line 13, creating an image of unrecognizable ruins, not only of the statue, but of the memory of Ozymandias, King of Kings. Then in the last two lines, Shelley describes the vast, empty desert wasteland surrounding the wreck: "...boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away." This creates an image of a massive, desolate desert, which makes the remains of the colossus seem small and insignificant, much like the remains of the memory of the tyrant Ozymandias in history.

As well as saying that tyrants are eventually forgotten, eroded from collective memory like a fallen stone statue in the desert sand, Shelley also seems to invite you to consider your own mortality. If a mighty ruler like Ozymandias's legacy can fade, what about our own legacy? Thus the message is a little bit existentialist: what is the point of life if nothing remains after death but perhaps a bit of stone with an inscription on it, like a headstone in a graveyard?

You can learn more about "Ozymandias" on eNotes here and read the poem with annotations here

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How does the name Ozymandias reflect the theme of the poem?

This question shows a depth of understanding of how poetry works.  If the poem had been called by any other name of a famous ruler/tyrant/historical figure of western history (Caesar, Alexander, Richard III, George the Fourth, Charelmagne, etc.), the reader would have immediately connected the name with historical deeds of significance, and therefore the falseness of the figure's claim to greatness (the essence of the poem) would have been watered down.  But Ozymandias is a name that no-one connects to any deeds or monuments at all (except for the poem); he was a real figure in history (better known as Rameses), but Shelley's western readership would not know him.  The obscurity of the name, and its other-worldliness, works well to drive home the emptiness of his boast, and universalizes the theme of man's deeds being empty, temporary, and miniscule compared to Time, the natural elements ("the lone and level sands"), and the universe.  In actual fact, Ozymandias (his throne name) left several monuments behind.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on