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Ozymandias

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English Literature

‘Ozymandias’ is perhaps one of Shelley's most famous poems besides ‘Ode to the West Wind’. Its powerful imagery of fallen majesty also reflects Shelley’s fight against tyranny. Like his father-in-law, William Godwin, Shelley was opposed to monarchy and the government. By writing about Ozymandias, Shelley sends a warning to those in power – that time conquers all.

‘I met a traveller from an antique land, Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. . .”’–Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Ozymandias’, 1818

‘Ozymandias’ summary

Written in 1817
Written byPercy Bysshe Shelley (1757-1827)

Meter

Iambic pentameter

Rhyme schemeABABACDCEDEFEF
Literary deviceFrame narrative
Poetic deviceAlliteration, enjambment
Frequently noted imageryBroken remains of a Pharoah’s statue; desert
ToneIronic, declamatory
Key themesMortality and passage of time; the transience of power
MeaningThe speaker in the poem describes the transience of power: a giant ruined statue in the middle of the desert has no role left in the present, even though its inscription still proclaims omnipotence.


1818 was an important year for world literature, which say the publication of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and of ‘Ozymandias’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Percy Bysshe Shelley( 1792–1822), who was one of the most prominent Romantic poets, is best remembered for his poetry and complicated love life, yet his controversial ideas on politics and society were ahead of his time, promoting free thought, free love and human rights. How did he come to write Ozymandias?

‘Ozymandias’: context

We can examine ‘Ozymandias’ in both its historical and literary contexts.

‘Ozymandias’: historical context

The year that Shelley wrote ‘Ozymandias’, exciting news had been leaking out from the British Museum. The Italian explorer and archaeologist Giovanni Belzoni was bringing ancient relics from Egypt to the British Museum. All of London was abuzz with talk of their imminent arrival from the Land of the Pharaohs (it actually took Belzoni over a year to transport them). Among the finds was a statue of Ramesses II. A fresh interest in Ancient Egypt and its civilisation was growing, and Shelley was no exception.

‘Towards the end of 1817, the wonder and speculation...prompted a friendly contest between two poets on the theme of Ozymandias.’–Stanley Mayes, The Great Belzoni, 1961

Shelley was fascinated by the idea of this colossal emblem of power, discovered in the sands of Egypt. In the winter of 1817, then, Shelley set himself to write the poem as part of a competition with his friend and the fellow poet Horace Smith.

Ozymandias, Shelley & Ramses against a background of the Ozymandias group, StudySmarterShelley fascinated by the idea of Ramses IIJW - StudySmarter created on Canva

Shelley opens the poem in a direct narrative :

‘I met a traveller from an antique land’ and the question immediately arises – who was this traveller? Was he entirely fictional? Or did Shelley somehow meet Belzoni after all? It is tempting to imagine such a meeting, perhaps in the shade of the statue itself. However, by the time Belzonio finally managed to get the colossal mass of carved stone to London, Shelley had probably already left England for Italy.

Perhaps the opening line ‘I met a traveller’ is wishful thinking on Shelley's part. After all, he loved a good adventure and meeting one who had experienced Ramses up close, so to speak, would have been fire to his already active imagination.

‘Ozymandias’: literary context

Meanwhile, whether the two men met or not, there was a description of the statue by the ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus to set him off:

‘The shades from the tomb… stands a monument of the king known as Ozymandyas…the inscription upon it runs:

King of Kings am I, Ozymandyas. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works.

(Diodorus Siculus, from ‘P.B.Shelley, Selected Poems & Prose, Cameron, 1967)

Perhaps Shelley was familiar with this text through his classical education, and it does seem he paraphrased it to a degree:

And on the pedestal, these words appear: My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

In addition to the classics, there were various travel books around, including Pococke’s Description of the East (1743), and Savary’s Letters on Egypt (1787). One other travel writer, Denon, also describes the statue of Ozymandias - and mentions the inscription, although it is worn away with time. Curiously, his phrases ‘the hand of time’, ‘shattered’, ‘nothing of it remains’ and ‘on the pedestal’ are also used in Shelley's poem.

Perhaps the most interesting detail is the fact that in October and November of 1817, the Shelleys received a visitor by the name of Walter Coulson, who edited a London journal called ‘The Traveller.’ Did Coulson bring a copy containing news of Belzoni’s arrival? Or was Coulson ‘the traveller’? It is possible that Shelley drew on various sources and blended them in his imagination.

‘Ozymandias’ poem analysis and quotes

‘Ozymandias’: the poem

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.

‘Ozymandias’: form and structure

‘Ozymandias’ is structured as a Petrarchan Sonnet, but with some variation. It contains 14 lines broken up into an octet (8 lines) followed by a sestet (6 lines). The first part (the octet) sets the premise: who speaks and what they are talking about. The second part (the sestet) responds to the situation by commenting on it.

The second part is introduced by a ‘volta’, or turning point:

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

The 'volta' introduces the pedestal containing the pharaoh’s vainglorious words. This structure suggests the structure of a Petrarchan sonnet rather than a Shakespearean one.

A Shakespearean sonnet contains three quatrains (verses of 4 lines each), rhyming alternately, closing with a rhyming couplet. The scheme or pattern goes ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.

In ‘Ozymandias’, Shelley uses the rhyme scheme of the Shakespearean sonnet (somewhat loosely) but follows the structure of the Petrarchan sonnet.

‘Ozymandias’: meter

Ozymandias adopts a loose iambic pentameter.

The iamb is a foot that contains two syllables, with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. It is the most commonly used foot in poetry. Examples of iamb are: destroy, belong, relay.

The pentameter bit simply means that the iamb is repeated five times in a line.

Iambic pentameter is a line of verse containing ten syllables. Every second syllable is stressed:And wrin/kled lip/, and sneer/ of cold/ command

Hint: try counting the syllables in the first two lines below. How many are there per line? Now try reading them out loud and see where the stress falls.

‘I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone’

‘Ozymandias’: literary devices

Shelley uses a frame narrative for Ozymandias.

A frame narrative means one story is told inside another story.

Who narrates the story of ‘Ozymandias’?

There are three narrators in ‘Ozymandias’:

  • Shelley, the narrator who opens the poem

  • The traveller who describes the remains of the statue

  • (The statue of) Ozymandias, in the inscription.

Shelley opens with one line:

‘I met a traveller from an antique land, Who said...’

The traveller then continues with a description of the broken statue in the sand:

‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . .’

The traveller then imagines how the sculptor managed to carve the expression onto the statue, imbuing it with arrogance and cruelty:

‘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...’

The traveller then introduces the inscription engraved on the pedestal of the statue:

‘And on the pedestal, these words appear:...’

Ozymandias now speaks through the words cut into the stone:

‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

After this, the traveller concludes with a description of the desolate situation of this once perfect statue, which now lies in dust, half-forgotten:

‘Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

Despite the immense power this Pharoah once had, all that remains of him now is a broken statue in the vast and empty desert.

Enjambment

Sometimes poems have the context or meaning flowing from one line to the next. An enjambment in poetry is when an idea or thought continues from one line of poetry into the following line without a break.

There are two cases in 'Ozymandias' where Shelley uses enjambment. The first occurs between the 2nd and 3rd line:

‘Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,’

The line is unbroken and continues into the next without pause.

Hint: can you spot a second enjambment when you read the poem?

Alliteration

Alliteration refers to when two or more sounds are repeated in rapid succession. For example: burn bright, swan song, long lost.

Shelley uses several alliterations in 'Ozymandias' to emphasise or add dramatic effect. For example, ‘Cold command’ in line 5 describes the expression on the statue’s face.

Hint: when reading the poem, how many more alliterations can you find? What do they describe?

‘Ozymandias’: mortality and passage of time as a key theme

While Ramesses II once held immense power, all that remains of him now is a faceless piece of rock in the desert. Shelley seems to say that pride and status are worth very little –time will overtake all; the pharaoh’s boastful words ‘King of Kings’ now sound hollow and vain.

Shelley's poem also has a political undercurrent - his general disapproval of royalty finds voice here. The idea of a despotic monarch, a single man born into a status rather than earning it, ran contrary to all his beliefs in a freer and better-ordered world.

Ozymandias - Key takeaways

  • Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote ‘Ozymandias’ in 1817.

  • ‘Ozymandias’ was published in 1818.

  • ‘Ozymandias’ is about a statue of Ramses II and fallen power.

  • ‘Ozymandias’ means that time changes all.

  • The main message of ‘Ozymandias’ is that power is never absolute or eternal.

  • There are three narrators in the poem: Shelley, the Traveller, and Ozymandias.

Ozymandias

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote ‘Ozymandias’ in 1817.

It is about a statue of Ramses II and the loss of power.

It means time changes all.

However powerful you are, power is never absolute or eternal.

There are three narrators: Shelley, the Traveller, and Ozymandias.

Final Ozymandias Quiz

Question

Who wrote 'Ozymandias'?


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Answer

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote ‘Ozymandias' in 1817

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Question

What is 'Ozymandias' about?

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Answer

It is about a statue of Ramses II discovered in the desert.

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Question

What does 'Ozymandias' mean?

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Answer

It means that time changes all

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Question

What is the main message of the poem Ozymandias?

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Answer

However powerful you are, time will change all.

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Question

Who narrates the story of Ozymandias?

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Answer

There are 3 narrators: Shelley, the traveller, and Ozymandias. 

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Question

Truse or False? In the winter of 1818 Shelley set himself to write the poem as part of a competition with his friend and fellow poet Horace Smith.


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Answer

False: In the winter of 1817 Shelley set himself to write the poem as part of a competition with his friend and fellow poet Horace Smith.

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Question

Complete: The Italian explorer and … Giovanni Belzoni was bringing ancient … from … for the British Museum.

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Answer

The Italian explorer and archaeologist Giovanni Belzoni was bringing ancient relics from Egypt for the British Museum.

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Question

Complete: 1818 was an important year for the world of literature:

… by Mary Shelley was published

… by Percy Bysshe Shelley was published.


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Answer

1818 was an important year for the world of literature:

  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley was published
  • 'Ozymandias' by Percy Bysshe Shelley was published.

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Question

 Ozymandias is about



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Answer

A traveller

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Question

 True or False? The traveller is the only narrator of Ozymandias.

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Answer

False. There are 3 narrators: Shelley, the traveller, and Ozymandias.

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Question

Complete: Despite the immense … this Pharoah clearly once had, all that remains of him now is a … piece of rock in the …. 


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Answer

Despite the immense power this Pharoah clearly once had, all that remains of him now is a faceless piece of rock in the desert. 

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Question

In the winter of 1817 the Shelleys were visited by


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Answer

A traveller

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