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 shatter'd visage lies, whose frown And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things, The hand that mock'd 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" (or /ɒziːˈmændiːəs/) is a sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley, published in 1818. It is frequently anthologized and is probably Shelley's most famous short poem. It was written in competition with his friend Horace Smith, who wrote another sonnet entitled "Ozymandias" (for which see below).

In addition to the power of its themes and imagery, the poem is notable for its virtuosic diction. The rhyme scheme of the sonnet is unusual and creates a sinuous and interwoven effect.


Written in December 1817 during a writing contest, and first published in Leigh Hunt's Examiner of January 11, 1818. Shelley points out that the poem was selected for the book by his "bookseller" (publisher) and not by himself.

The central theme of Ozymandias is mankind's hubris. In fourteen short lines, Shelley condenses the history of not only Ozymandias' rise, peak, and fall, but also that of an entire civilization. Without directly stating it, Shelley shows that all works of humankind - as well as humans themselves are all equal, and everything must eventually die. Whether you be a Pharaoh or peasant, you are just as mortal as any other living thing. Ozymandias' short-sighted pride seems amusing at first - until the reader realizes that the lessons conveyed relates to modern rulers today. (These rulers could be suggested to those in the Middle East)

Despite its enduring popularity, some Shelley scholars have treated "Ozymandias" as one of the poet's lesser works. One major study, Harold Bloom's Shelley's Mythmaking (1959), doesn't mention it at all; but Bloom intended only to write about Shelley's longer poems and did not address many of his shorter works. Others (e.g. Ana-Maria Tupan, see ref.) treat it as marking a Late Romantic concern with the relationships among life, history, and art that is common to Shelley, Wordsworth, Keats, and Byron.

Ozymandias was another name of Ramesses the Great, Pharaoh of the nineteenth dynasty of ancient Egypt. Ozymandias represents a transliteration into Greek of a part of Ramesses' throne name, User-maat-re Setep-en-re. The sonnet paraphrases the inscription on the base of the statue, given by Diodorus Siculus as "King of Kings am I, Osymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works. Shelley's poem is often said to have been inspired by the arrival in London of a colossal statue of Ramesses II, acquired for the British Museum by the Italian adventurer Giovanni Belzoni in 1816. Rodenbeck, however, points out that the poem was written and published before the statue arrived in Britain, and thus that Shelley could not have seen it. But its repute in Western Europe preceded its actual arrival in Britain (Napoleon had previously made an unsuccessful attempt to acquire it for France, for example), and thus it may have been its repute or news of its imminent arrival rather than seeing the statue itself which provided the inspiration.

Among the earlier senses of the verb "to mock" is "to fashion an imitation of reality" (as in "a mock-up"); but by Shelley's day the current sense "to ridicule" (especially by mimicking) had come to the fore.

In his sonnet Shelley celebrates the anonymous artist and his achievement, and our poet himself survives the ruins of the oppressor by making a tight, compact sonnet out of a second-hand story about ruins in a desert. The lone and level sands stretching far away suggest the desolation that results from the impulse to impose oneself on the landscape. When Shelley says "nothing beside remains," he suggests the nothingness of space around the ruins and of the ruins themselves, and he puns on the ruins as "remains." That there is nothing beside the ruins emphasises their loneliness and desolation, disconnected not only in space – from other physical things, but also in time – from the busy and important context in which they must have once existed, as an interconnected part of an ancient city.

This sonnet is often incorrectly quoted or reproduced. The most common misquotation – "Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" – replaces the correct "on" with "upon", thus turning the regular decasyllabic (iambic pentameter) verse into an 11-syllable verse, which is a license that is generally avoided unless there is good reason to indulge in it.

Smith's poem

In Egypt's sandy silence, all alone, Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws The only shadow that the Desert knows: "I am great OZYMANDIAS," saith the stone, "The King of Kings; this mighty City shows "The wonders of my hand." The City's gone, Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose The site of this forgotten Babylon. We wonder, and some Hunter may express Wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace, He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess What powerful but unrecorded race Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
Horace Smith.

Percy Shelley apparently wrote this sonnet in competition with his friend Horace Smith, as Smith published a sonnet a month after Shelley's in the same magazine. It takes the same subject, tells the same story, and makes the same moral point. It was originally published under the same title as Shelley's verse; but in later collections Smith retitled it "On A Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below".

Smith's verse lacks the enduring appeal of Shelley's, and is not nearly so fondly remembered or so often quoted. Shelley's Ozymandias contains an accessible mystery, and a "moral" that can be pleasantly analysed in a school-room. It is a fairly archetypal example of what constitutes a classic poem in terms of the modern English literature syllabus. On the other hand, Smith's verse may appear excessively didactic or even heavy-handed, to some readers.

See also

Further reading

  • Reiman, Donald H. and Sharon B. Powers. Shelley's Poetry and Prose. Norton, 1977. ISBN 0-393-09164-3.
  • Shelley, Percy Bysshe and Theo Gayer-Anderson (illust.) Ozymandias. Hoopoe Books, 1999. ISBN 977-5325-82-X
  • Rodenbeck, John. “Travelers from an Antique Land: Shelley's Inspiration for ‘Ozymandias,’” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, no. 24 (“Archeology of Literature: Tracing the Old in the New”), 2004, pp. 121-148.



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