Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Here is an analysis of Ozymandias, a poem written by one of the greatest Romantic poets in history, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley never achieved fame while he was alive, but he did keep company with some extremely talented writers: his good friends included George Gordon Lord Byron and John Keats, and he was married to Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. Shelley most popular works include Ozymandias, To a Skylark, and Prometheus Unbound, which is perhaps his most lauded work. Born into a well-to-do family, Shelley eventually attended Oxford, where he first started his writing career. He was expelled, however, when he refused to admit that he was the author of an anonymous text on atheism. Shelley met and fell in love with a young Mary Godwin, even though he was already married. He abandoned his family to be with her; they married after his first wife committed suicide, and Mary changed her surname to Shelley. Tragically, Shelley died young, at the age of 29, when the boat he was sailing got caught in a storm. His body washed to shore some time later.

 

Summary of Ozymandias

In this poem, the speaker describes meeting a traveler “from an antique land.” The title, ‘Ozymandias’, notifies the reader that this land is most probably Egypt, since Ozymandias was what the Greeks called Ramses II, a great and terrible pharaoh in ancient Egypt. The traveler tells a story to the speaker. In the story, he describes visiting Egypt and seeing a large and intimidating statue in the sand. He can tell that the sculptor must have known his subject well because it is obvious from the statues face that this man was a great leader, but one who could also be very vicious: he describes his sneer as having a “cold command.” Even though the leader was probably very great, it seems that the only thing that survives from his realm is this statue, which is half buried and somewhat falling apart.

 

Breakdown Analysis of Ozymandias

Ozymandias is considered to be a Petrarchan sonnet, even though the rhyme scheme varies slightly from the traditional form. As all sonnets are, this poem contains fourteen lines and is written in iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme of Ozymandias is ababacdcedefef. This rhyme scheme differs from the rhyme scheme of a traditional Petrarchan sonnet, whose octave (the first eight lines of the poem) usually has a rhyme scheme of abbaabba; its sestet (the final six lines of the sonnet) does not have an assigned rhyme scheme, but it usually rhymes every other line, or contains three different rhymes. Shelley’s defiance of this rhyme scheme helps to set apart Ozymandias from other Petrarchan sonnets, and it is perhaps why this poem is so memorable. The reason he did this may have been to represent the corruption of authority.

To start, Ozymandias carries an extended metaphor throughout the entire poem. All around the traveler is desert—nothing is green or growing; the land is barren. The statue, however, still boasts of the accomplishments this civilization had in the past. The desert represents the fall of all empires—nothing powerful and rich can ever stay that strong forever. This metaphor is made even more commanding in the poem by Shelley’s use of an actual ruler—Shelley utilizes an allusion to a powerful ruler in ancient Egypt to show that even someone so all-powerful will eventually fall.

The sonnet itself reads more like a story than a poem, although the line rhymes do help to remind the reader that this is not prose. The speaker in the poem, perhaps Percy Bysshe Shelley, tells the story from his point of view, using the pronoun “I.” The first line reads, “I met a traveler from an antique land…” At first, this line is a tad ambiguous: Is the traveler from an antique land, or did he just come back from visiting one? The reader also does not know where the speaker first met this sojourner. The title indicates which land the traveler has visited: The Greeks called Ramses II, a powerful Egyptian pharaoh, Ozymandias, so it is easy for the reader to recognize the antique land as Egypt, one of the oldest civilizations in the world. The lines that follow are much clearer than the first, however, and it is clear to the reader what, exactly, is occurring in the sonnet. The rest of the sonnet is actually written in dialogue; the traveler is recounting his experiences in Egypt to the poem’s speaker. Lines two through fourteen are only one sentence in length, as well. These lines also contain some of the most vivid and beautiful imagery in all of poetry. Shelley was such a masterful writer that it does not take much effort on the part of the reader to clearly imagine the scene in this poem. In lines two through five, the traveler describes a statue he sees in Egypt. Shelley writes:

Who said—“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…

In these lines, the reader, through the eyes of the traveler, sees two massive legs carved from stone lying in the desert sand. Nearby, the face of the statue is half-buried. The face is broken, but the traveler can still see the sculpture is wearing a frown and a sneer. From this, he is able to tell that this ruler probably had absolutely power, and he most definitely ruled with an iron fist. It is also easy to interpret that this ruler probably had a lot of pride as the supreme leader of his civilization.

The traveler then turns his attention to the sculptor who made the statue, commenting that whomever the sculptor is, he knew his subject very well. Shelley writes, “Tell that its sculptor well those passions read/Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things…” Shelley also seems to be commenting in line seven that while there is an end to natural life, art is eternal—it survives.

Lines eight through eleven give more details about the sculpture, and the latter ones include words that have been etched into the ruler’s pedestal. Shelley writes,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

The traveler provides interesting insight into the leader here. First, his hands show that the pharaoh mocked his people, yet his heart was not all bad: he fed and cared for his people, as well. This line provides an interesting dichotomy often found in the most terrible of leaders. The words written on the pedestal on which the leader sits also tells of Ozymandias’ personality. He is ordering those who see him to look upon all that he has created, but do not appreciate what he has done. Instead, despair and be afraid of it. These words perfectly depict the leader’s hubris.

The last three lines, however, take on a different tone. Now, the leader is gone, and so is his empire. Shelley implements irony into these lines to show that even though this broken statue remains, the leader’s civilization does not. It has fallen, much like the statue, and has turned to dust. Shelley writes,

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

These are powerful lines, and the traveler almost seems to be mocking the ruler. Shelley’s diction here is important. He uses words such as decay and bare to show just how powerless this once-mighty pharaoh has become. There is absolutely nothing left. The leader, much like his land, and much like the broken statue depicting him, has fallen. It is in these lines that the theme of the poem emerges: All leaders will eventually pass, and all civilizations will eventually fall.

 

Historical Analysis

It is an understatement to say that Shelley was a clever man. While one can read this poem to be about an ancient leader of Egypt, the poem could also be read as a criticism for the world in which Shelley lived. Ever the political critic, Shelley is perhaps warning the leaders of England that they, too, will fall someday.

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  • Avatar Charlie says:

    I taught this poem during my AP English classes 20 years ago. Just a couple of comments from my repeated readings of it. First, I assume confidently that Shelley knew the word “remains” is both a verb and a noun connoting a corpse for viewing. Thus that short sentence presents an intriguing ambiguity.

    In addition, one analysis I happened across presented a detailed layout showing how the first line relates closely to the last line, the second line relates to the 13th line, and so on. Absolutely fascinating. Shelley was surely a genius in the manipulation of words, words which for the most part are fairly simple. Robert Frost was capable of the same sort of manipulation in his work.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      This is great additional information. Thank you for adding this.

  • Avatar Tom Moreton says:

    Hi, is there an Oxford reference to this poem? I’d love to use is in a piece I’m working on,; this wonderful analysis really inspired me!

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      You mean a reference to the analysis? I’m not sure how “oxford referencing” works but it will have a system for quoting from web pages. I also think there’s a web site that generates references for you. Saved me loads of time when I was doing my degree!

  • Avatar Dorothy Smith says:

    Thanks this was really useful to revise for my end of year exams I really appreciate it as poems are so hard to understand sometimes
    Dorothy

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      They can appear that way at times, I agree. Sometimes just reading how another person reads it can really help you get a grip on how to analyse a poem, I think.

  • Avatar Dorothy says:

    Thanks this was really useful to revise for my end of year exams I really appreciate it

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      You’re welcome. I hope they go, or are going well!

  • Avatar pay dae says:

    could you analyse the structural devices here please, perhaps how shellley intentionally makes breaks and defiles the traditional pratrachan to show that the people in authority may look appealing like the poem overall but when u take a closer look, it is corrupt

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Thank you for your feedback. This has been amended accordingly.

  • Avatar Ibrahim Rehmani says:

    I am a student and I found this to be very useful for my GSCEs as we have to learn this for our anthology, a mixture of poems sharing a theme. This theme is power and conflict so having background information is really good as then we know what the inferences of it is!!! Again very good!!

    • Emma Baldwin Emma Baldwin says:

      Thank you for your comment, Ibrahim. We’re very glad we could help with your GSCEs.

  • Avatar albert john says:

    this poem really reflecting the people in the power today. power is only the temporary. thus it has to use properly.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Yeah I agree- it does seem like certain world leaders have the same narrow minded, short-sightedness you’d associate with Ozymandias!

  • Avatar lovely gurl says:

    hi there! could you pls start adding backgrounds of the poems as well. and your analyses are great.
    thank you

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Hi there. We generally leave it up to our writers whether they include context or not. For some poems, it just doesn’t seem relevant, although in this case, it is massively! So I am going to edit the analysis for this to include a section on the context of the poem! By coincidence, I have a bunch of students learning this poem at the moment so it is fresh in my mind!

      • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

        Actually having read through I think the writer probably covers the appropriate context by talking about how Shelley was probably using the poem as a metaphor for his political unrest.

  • Avatar Barbara NICHOLLS says:

    Thank you for sharing your insight. I’ve never read poetry but I am determined to learn more.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Welcome to the world of poetry (and this is a great poem to start with!) be careful it’s addictive!

  • Avatar jess says:

    really great analysis, thank you!

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Thank you for the feedback.

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