Ozymandias – Percy Bysshe Shelley

I think I read Ozymandias, a sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley, in my 8th grade for the very first time. It talks about a mutilated statue that the poet says he heard about, through “a traveller from an antique land”. I even remember the bizarre drawing that accompanied the poem. It was nowhere as detailed as the illustration that I managed to dig up from the internet and put on this post. It was a black and white sketch of the infamous “vast and trunkless legs of stone” and the “shattered visage” next to it looked quite dreadful, if my memory serves me right.

The subject of the ruined colossus was, of course, Ramesses II, reportedly the greatest and most powerful of all Egyptian pharaohs, so much so, that his descendants often referred to him as the “Great Ancestor”. According to Wikipedia, Ozymandias is the Greek transliteration of his Egyptian throne name, “Usermaatre Setepenre” meaning “The justice of Re is powerful – chose of Re”, Re (or Ra) being the Egyptian sun god. He is famous for his innumerable successes on the battlefield and was largely responsible for securing and expanding Egyptian influence in the region. Ozymandias is also known for his obsession with building, transforming the landscape of Egypt with huge monuments to himself especially the temple complex of Ramesseum. Some ruins are all that is left of his buildings now.

Coming back to the poem, the sonnet itself has an interesting origin story. It was written as part of a competition that Shelley had had with his friend, the poet and writer Horace Smith, seemingly influenced by the impending arrival of a broken statue of Ramesses II at a London museum. They each penned a sonnet of the same name and had it published anonymously or using a pen name. We can clearly tell who won that competition now, hands down. Smith’s poem is not so well known, most likely mentioned only in the context of the aforementioned competition. On the other hand, this one by Shelley has for sure withstood the test of time – quite unlike the works of the titular character of the poem.

The poem uses an iambic pentameter (five iambs per line), though rather loosely. It follows an unusual ababa cdcedefef rhyme pattern as against the abbaabba cdc cdc (or cde cde) of most English sonnets written in the Italian tradition. Its structure also breaks away from the usual octave-sestet format of sonnets.

The poem begins with the preamble, “I met a traveller from an antique land” and quickly transfers the point of view to the said traveller, who narrates,

“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert”

Now, that immediately catches our attention as well as our imagination, as we grapple with the word vast in our minds, trying to gauge how big the statue really had been. The pause that Shelley makes in the middle of the 3rd line is almost as if to give us the time get our heads around the truly colossal nature of the monument, standing in the middle of nowhere.

Stand in the dessert…Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies”

It must have been a really eerie sight, the legs standing tall all by themselves, and nothing but the fractured face of the once whole statue for company.

Then we get to the “shattered visage” and what an expression it had! What arrogance and disdain and self-satisfaction?

Whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command

The poet uses minimal details to bring out all the contempt and condescension etched into the lines and grooves of the once proud face.

The sculptor who created the statue must have made a close study of his subject indeed, to bring to life these qualities, so befitting the powerful and self-aggrandizing monarch that Ozymandias was.

“Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things”

He seems to have understood the very essence of the Ozymandias’s soul and brought it out so accurately on the face of the statue using his evidently considerable skill.

“The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed”

This is probably the most famous line in the poem. “The hand that mocked them” obviously belongs to the sculptor and “the heart that fed” to his subject. It is a very interesting line too, because the word “mocked” can be interpreted in two different ways. In using the word, did Shelley mean to say “laughed at”? (Not out loud, of course, unless the sculptor had a death wish) If so, would that mean that the sculptor held the monarch in contempt for his all-too-human frailties of pride and ego and hence brought those qualities to the forefront? Or did the poet just mean “imitated”, and the sculptor simply replicated these “passions” as evidenced on the face of the pharaoh, and “fed” by his ambitious heart. Now no one will ever know what the poet intended. But my belief is that Shelley deliberately used the wordplay to lend itself to both the readings.

The traveller continues his narrative, talking now about the inscription on the pedestal of the statue. It apparently said,

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

which is very much in keeping with our understanding so far of Ozymandias’s character. The poet, in actuality, has used a loose rewording of the inscription given by Diodorus Siculus in his Bibliotheca historica as “King of Kings am I, Ozymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works.” The pharaoh had been so sure of the permanence of his earthly works, that he practically challenged his successors to surpass them in scale and grandeur. He had sought to immortalize himself in stone, even to the point of deifying himself. He had thought all those grandiose monuments he had built would live on forever bearing testimony to his greatness for all eternity to come. But alas, nothing beside remains. The last 3 lines perfectly encapsulate the desolation and ruin of the once great king’s legacy.

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

Ozymandias – Percy Bysshe Shelley

Ozymandias - Percy Bysshe Shelley

Source: genius.com

I met a traveller from an antique land,
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,
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;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

4 thoughts on “Ozymandias – Percy Bysshe Shelley

  1. Remember doing this in school. Some powerful lines there – esp “nothing beside remains”. don’t really get the line “the heart that fed”. Wonder what exactly Shelley was trying to convey..

    • My take is that the poet is referring to the king’s heart that “fed”, or the heart that was reflected in, the “passions” on the statue’s face – the frown, the wrinkled lip, and the sneer of cold command. In other words, a heart full of pride and arrogance and self importance.

      • But “hand” is sculptor’s? “hand” and “heart” both must refer to the sculptor’s or both must refer to the king’s – this is how I interpreted:-)

        • Ah.. I see what you are saying now. If both hand and heart is belonged to the sculptor, it would be a bit difficult to explain the “heart that fed” alright. But you could argue that it means the sculptor’s heart which “fed” his hand. Though it somewhat diminishes the profundity of that line, don’t you think?
          I have always felt that the skill of the sculptor and the personality of the king are both equally on display on the statue’s face and that is what the poet is remarking about.

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