Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Introduction: Ozymandias is the Greek name for Ramesses the II. Ramesses the II reigned from1279 to 1213 BC (before Christ) and was known as Ramesses the Great. Shelley’s use of the name Ozymandias makes him sound more exotic, and he calls him a king instead of a pharaoh, perhaps for the sake of his audience.

The first impression of Ozymandias in Shelley’s poem is one that is described to the narrator by the traveller. Shelley describes a desolate and solitary place where a great kingdom once stood.

The imagery presented by Shelley is that of a fallen king that once ruled with absolute authority. The crumbled statue represents a cruel ruler’s dream of power and its lasting place alongside eternity, which has been reduced to a traveller’s curiosity and further emphasized in the ironic words on the pedestal.

The traveller says the “sneer and the cold command” on the statue’s face is the only remnant of this ancient civilization’s ruler.

Shelley ends his poem with a sense of how nature is eternal, which he portrays in the vastness of the desert’s sands.

The theme in Shelley’s poem seems to be that nothing lasts forever, even the most powerful have to fade and decay, and with time their greatness and power, too, will be forgotten.

Summary of the Poem

In this winding story within a poem, Shelley paints for us the image of the ruins of a statue of ancient Egyptian king Ozymandias, who is today commonly known as Ramesses II. This king is still regarded as the greatest and most powerful Egyptian pharaoh. Yet, all that’s left of the statue are his legs, which tell us it was huge and impressive; the shattered head and snarling face, which tell us how tyrannical he was; and his inscribed quote hailing the magnificent structures that he built and that have been reduced to dust, which tells us they might not have been quite as magnificent as Ozymandias imagined. The image of a dictator-like king whose kingdom is no more creates a palpable irony. But, beyond that there is a perennial lesson about the inescapable and destructive forces of time, history, and nature. Success, fame, power, money, health, and prosperity can only last so long before fading into “lone and level sands.”

There are yet more layers of meaning here that elevate this into one of the greatest poems. In terms of lost civilizations that show the ephemeralness of human pursuits, there is no better example than the Egyptians—who we associate with such dazzling monuments as the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid at Giza (that stands far taller than the Statue of Liberty)—yet who completely lost their spectacular language, culture, and civilization. If the forces of time, history, and nature can take down the Egyptian civilization, it begs the question, “Who’s next?” Additionally, Ozymandias is believed to have been the villainous pharaoh who enslaved the ancient Hebrews and who Moses led the exodus from. If all ordinary pursuits, such as power and fame, are but dust, what remains, the poem suggests, are spirituality and morality—embodied by the ancient Hebrew faith. If you don’t have those then in the long run you are a “colossal wreck.” Thus, the perfectly composed scene itself, the Egyptian imagery, and the Biblical backstory convey a perennial message and make this a great poem.

Notes and Explanations

Line 1
By prefacing the narrative with this line, the speaker makes the story that follows both more and less reliable. Because the following description comes from someone who went to Egypt and actually saw the statue, the story seems more credible. At the same time, however, the fact that the reader hears the story from ‘the friend of a friend’ could make its validity seem questionable. These two vastly different perspectives on how the tale is told anticipate the many crossroads of interpretation in “Ozymandias”.

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Lines 2­-3
As soon as the traveller begins describing the crumbling statue, the rhyme and meter of the poem begin to fall apart. His sentences, in their broken bursts, serve to distinguish his voice from the speaker’s, to show how excited he is about his discovery, and to recreate verbally the fragmented statue.

Lines 4­-7
The description of the statue’s face introduces the poem’s central irony: the power that Ozymandias meant to capture for eternity has, instead, become a testament to the mutability of such power. The lines also suggest that the sculptor was a keener observer than the king himself, who might have objected to the portrayal of himself had he understood the implications of his own frown.

Line 8
This difficult line is composed in the traveller’s typical, fragmented style; the reader should note that it is the traveller, not the speaker or Shelley, who is struggling so with language. Taking into account that the “hand” is the sculptor’s, the “heart” is the king’s, and “them” refers to the “passions” of Ozymandias (line 6), the statement becomes more clear: while the sculptor “mocked” (i.e., both imitated and derided) his subject’s intensity of emotion, Ozymandias continued to feed his pride— though he was already “full of himself.”

Lines 9­-11
Shelley’s reader encounters this message through the screen of many other interpreters. The inscription was initially Ozymandias’ own idea; then the sculptor provided an artistic interpretation of the words, in the pedestal as well as the face of the statue; the traveller viewed the wreckage and passed along the information to the speaker, who relays it to his reader. Ozymandias’ words have indeed survived through time, but change and time have created a new context and thus a new meaning for his words. His “Works” might now just be represented by the crumbling image of himself, instead of the vast creation that would have caused subsequent rulers to know they could never match his power. The “Mighty” might be the average visitor to the site, instead of those younger rulers, since almost anyone has to look down to see Ozymandias’ face now. Perhaps viewers feel “despair” not because Ozymandias’ fate is unachievable, but because it will be shared by all humankind.

Lines 12­-14
In these lines, a sense of stillness, timelessness and infinite distances achieved through alliteration (“boundless” and “bare”, “lone” and “level”) and long vowels sounds (“decay”, “bare”) reflects the depiction of the vast desert (where processes of growth and decay are extremely slow) in Egypt, a civilization even older than ancient Greece or Italy.

Meanings of Expressions

An antique land –ancient country; here; Egypt. Egyptian civilization is one of the oldest in the history of the world.

Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
…..sand – The statue is barely standing, the rest is ruined and missing – Suggesting that it is being eaten away by time and the desert, a futile struggle to survive where nobody is around to care.

a shattered visage – the broken face of the statue.

Whose frown-And wrinkled lip,
and sneer of cold command – On the face of the statue is an expression of anger, contempt, haughtiness, and sternness. The face shows a hardened sense of authority and power.

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read – It is clear that the sculptor who made the statue correctly understood the passions or feelings of the king and, therefore, successfully reproduced them on stone.
Which yet survive …. That fed (Lines 7-8) – The passions or feelings of the kind still exist on the face of the statue, while the sculptor who carved those passions or feelings on stone, and the king who experienced those passions or feeling, are dead and gone.
The hand that mocked them – The sculptor’s hand which reproduced or represented the king’s feelings on stone. “Mocked” is here used in the sense of “imitated them without feeling any admiration for them”. “Them” refers to those passions.
And the heart that fed – and the kings’ heart which nourished or experienced those passions).
Note: To be able to get the meaning, you should read these lines thus: “whose frown and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, tell that its sculptor well read those passions which, stamped on these lifeless things, yet survive the hand that mocked them and the heart that fed”. The idea is that the king’s passions still remain depicted on stone, while the sculptor’s hand and the king’s heart are no more, both the sculptor and the king having died long ago.
Pedestal – base; foot,

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these words appear – there is an inscription on the pedestal. My name is Ozymandias – King Ozymandias flourished about 2100 B.C. He was the first soldier-king to invade Asia.
Note: The inscription on the foot of the pedestal reveals the name of the king, and gives us an idea of how great and powerful he was.
Nothing beside remains ….. stretch far away (Lines 12-14) – There is nothing else to be seen near the statue. A vast, desolate and barren desert surrounds the remains of that huge statue which lies broken.

colossal – huge. “Colossal” is from Colossus. “Colossus” was a huge statue bestriding the harbour of Rhodes so that ships could pass under its legs. “Colossal” therefore means huge).
Note: The last three lines describing the present ruined state of the statue present a vivid and pathetic contrast with the preceding two lines which convey the glory and greatness of Ozymandias.

Critical Appreciation Of Ozymandias

This poem relates an experience of a traveller from Egypt. This traveller saw two huge and trunkless legs of a statue in the desert. Near them lay, half-buried, the broken face of the statue. On this face can still be seen the expression of haughtiness and a sense of authority which had skillfully been depicted by the sculptor, and which survives the sculptor. On the pedestal, the following words were inscribed: “My name is Ozymandias and I am a great king. Look at the great deeds which I have accomplished and which nobody can equal.” Round the broken statue stretched a vast desert.

In form, this poem is a sonnet. The sonnet-form was not really suited to Shelley’s genius because the sonnet imposes restraints and restrictions under which Shelley must have felt impatient. For this reason, Shelley wrote very few sonnets and failed to achieve distinction in them. This poem, for instance, does not rigidly obey the accepted conventions of the form of the sonnet. The rhyme-scheme does not follow any of the recognized patterns, and some of the rhymes are faulty (for instance, stone and frown; appear and despair).

But although not perfect, it is the best of the few sonnets Shelley has ever written. It has been honoured by critics and is considered a most strong, creative and evocative poem. His moral goes with power and vigour into our souls. The pride of people and the pomp are not forever. Hammers of decay rapidly pursue the building hammers. For houses and monuments, time works ruinous. However, moral standards are not articulated explicitly. The poet gives us only an image and we have to draw the meaning. It’s a didactic poem, but it doesn’t explicitly affect us. Shelley said that he didn’t preach moral lessons directly, however, didactics was his abhorrence.

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There is a touch of sadness about the poem because it lets us focus on the arrogance of human desires and the inability of all our efforts to keep our memory alive forever. There is an exceptionally striking contrast between the king’s past glory and the current condition of the statue emphasizing the morale of the poem. The final lines of the poem are notable for their suggestivity. There are two important pictures in the sonnet. One of them is the portrait of the broken statue, an immense ruin, the face of which still wears lonely and level desert, limitless and blank, stretching far away.

Assessment Questions

Q. Who are known as younger Romantics?
Ans. Byron, Shelley and Keats are known as younger Romantics.

(ii) Why was Shelley expelled from the university?
Ans. He was expelled for having published a pamphlet on The Necessity of Atheism.

(iii) What was the first notable work of Shelley?
Ans. The first notable work of Shelley is Queen Mab.

(iv) Name the two lyrical dramas written by Shelley.
Ans. The two lyrical dramas written by Shelley are Prometheus Unbound and Hellas

(v) Name the Elegy on the death of Keats, written by P.B. Shelley.
Ans. Adonais is the name of the elegy that was written by Shelley on the death of Keats.

(vi) What is the best-known prose work of Shelley?
Ans. The best-known prose work of Shelley is Defence of Poetry

(vii) Who was Ozymandias?
Ans. Ozymandias was a great Egyptian king
(viii) What was written on the pedestal of the statue of Ozymandias
Ans. My name is Ozymandias and I am a great king.
(ix) What is the theme of the poem ‘Ozymandias’?
Ans. Vanity of human greatness and the non-yielding attempts to immortalize human grandeur.


Q.1. ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings’…
Ans: Ozymandias was extremely mighty, stubborn, arrogant, and intoxicated with power. He was proud and boastful, and he felt that he was above everybody else. He was surely confident of his exceptional power and strength.

Q.2. Bring out the irony in the poem.
Ans: Ozymandias was very boastful and conceited. His proud and fractured face, the waste and ruins of the broken statue prove that the work and civilization of the Great King have crumbled. Time has raised its reputation and work and its ashes, together with a broken statue, bear witness that nothing lasts forever and that at the end all promises are sadly disproved.

Q.3.What is your impression of Ozymandias as a king?
Ans: Ozymandias, who trusted in his ability to rule throughout his kingdom, was an arrogant King. He was selfish, highly conceited and he cared and fed the people for favour. He hankered all the immortality and eternal fame. Ozymandias believed that none could ever equal his exploits.

Q.4. What message is conveyed in the poem ‘Ozymandias’?
Ans: The poet uses his shattered face to emphasize the ephemeral character of fame, popularity and power. The great king’s pride sadly has been disagreeable (I king of kings, look at my work, you mighty, you mighty). The statue is a metaphor for the unity of humanity and’ hubris’ for all men and women, not just symbolizing political power, but also great pride and self-confidence. It should be remembered that all Ozymandias remains are a work of art and the fact that art and expression depict the legacies of influence is shown in a group of words.

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