What happens in Ozymandias?

In "Ozymandias," Shelley describes the ruins of the once great tomb of Ramses II, also known as Ozymandias. This tomb was intended to memorialize Ramses' greatness, but instead paints a sad picture of death and decay in a barren desert.

  • The speaker meets a traveler who tells him about Ramses's tomb. The traveler's dialogue begins in line two and continues until the end of the fourteen-line sonnet.

  • Ozymandias clearly intended this tomb and its sphinx to immortalize him. An inscription on the tomb even reads: "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:/ Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" Unfortunately, that's not what the traveler felt when he saw it.

  • The sight of these ruins leads the traveler to conclude that everyone dies and that one day everything will succumb to the desert and the dust.

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(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The poem’s narrator presents the reader with a stunning vision of the tomb of Ozymandias, another name for Rameses II, King of Egypt during the 13th century B.C. Shelley emphasizes that to a modern viewer this tomb tells quite a different tale than that which Ozymandias had hoped it would. The king evidently commissioned a sculptor to create an enormous sphinx to represent his enduring power, but the traveler comes across only a broken heap of stones ravaged by time.

Enough of the original monument exists to allow Shelley a moment of triumph over the thwarted plans of the ruler. The face of Ozymandias is still recognizable, but it is “shattered,” and, though his “sneer of cold command” persists, it is obvious that he no longer commands anyone or anything. The vaunting words carved into the stone pedestal can still be read: “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Yet he is to be pitied, if not disdained, rather than held in awe and fear: The broken-down tomb is set in a vast wasteland of sand, perhaps Shelley’s way of suggesting that all tyrants ultimately end up in the only kind of kingdom they deserve, a barren desert.

Shelley’s sonnet, however, would not be the great poem it surely is if it were only a bit of political satire. The irony of “Ozymandias” cuts much deeper as the reader realizes that the forces of mortality and mutability, described brilliantly in the concluding lines, will erode and destroy all our lives. There is a special justice in the way tyrants are subject to time, but all humans face death and decay. The poem remains primarily an ironic and compelling critique of Ozymandias and other rulers like him, but it is also a striking meditation on time-bound humanity: the traveler in the ancient land, the sculptor-artist who fashioned the tomb, and the reader of the poem, no less than Ozymandias, inhabit a world that is “boundless and bare.”


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Ozymandias” is a sonnet composed by the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and named for its subject, with the Greek name of the Egyptian king Ramses II, who died in 1234 b.c.e. The poem follows the traditional structure of the fourteen-line Italian sonnet, featuring an opening octave, or set of eight lines, that presents a conflict or dilemma, followed by a sestet, or set of six lines, that offers some resolution or commentary upon the proposition introduced in the octave.

The poem is conventionally written in iambic pentameter (that is, ten syllables per line of coupled unstressed then stressed sounds), so the poem’s subject matter is framed both by the structural and metrical constraints chosen by the poet.

The first-person narrator of “Ozymandias” introduces a conversation he has chanced to have with a “traveller from an antique land” in line 1. The reader knows neither the identity of the traveler nor the circumstances wherein the poet has...

(The entire section is 791 words.)