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

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...

(The entire section is 667 words.)