Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” remains one of the best-crafted sonnets, as much for its vivid description as for the breadth and depth of its meaning. It is about much more than the futility of tyranny: It is about the power of art.
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” is one of his shortest works, but also one of his best known, anthologized to the point of ubiquity. But it deserves every bit of the reputation it has gained. Short, yet powerful and descriptive, it illustrates the sonnet at its best. And it is one of the few works, classical or modernist, that addresses a subject from that lodestone of the Western imagination, Ancient Egypt.
The sonnet, like any other, should be read only in its entirety before analysis:
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.
The historical context behind the poem is indispensable for a proper analysis. “Ozymandias” refers to an Egyptian king in the chronicles of the first-century B.C. Greek historian Diodorus of Sicily. It is a Graecized corruption of the Egyptian Usermaatre-setepenre, the throne name of Ramesses II, who reigned as pharaoh for 67 years (1279-1213 BC), and was by far Ancient Egypt’s greatest builder of stone monuments. The four colossi build into the Nubian cliffs at the temple of Abu Simbel are perhaps the most famous depictions of him—and they convey the grandiose scale of a monument such as Shelley describes in his poem.
Shelley published the poem in 1818—three years after the fall of Napoleon. Europe was still reeling from the twenty years of war he had inflicted on the continent and his single-handed reshaping of nations that had not changed since the Renaissance. But Napoleon also raised Ancient Egypt to new prominence in the European imagination. His invasion of Egypt in 1798 brought a separate army of French scholars to study its antiquities. From 1809 to 1818, they published the Description de l’Égypte, a twenty-three-volume catalogue of the land and its ancient ruins. Another scholar in Napoleon’s train, Jean-François Champollion, successfully deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs in 1815. When Shelley wrote his poem, Ramesses II and his works were just being discovered as something more than the Ozymandias in the garbled account of Diodorus.
The conventional interpretation of the poem is probably as well-known as the poem itself: Shelley criticizes authoritarian government; despite all his grandiose claims, the tyrant Ozymandias, much like Napoleon, is gone and forgotten, his stone colossi smashed and abandoned in the lonely desert. This reading is certainly valid. Shelley was a famous critic of authoritarianism, and his mockery of the grandiose designs of absolute monarchs cannot escape the reader. Though valid, however, this interpretation remains merely one facet of a much more subtle and interesting analysis of the poem.
Shelley’s portrayal of the desolation is masterful. He renders the entire scene as a secondhand account from a traveler—neither the reader nor he has actually seen the scene described—highlighting the remoteness of the ruin. The poem’s final three lines achieve a descriptive pan-out effect, moving from the inscription, to the ruined monument, to the empty desert stretching beyond vision, implicitly shrinking the grand monument to insignificance.
Yet despite the ruin and desolation of the monument, the fact remains: Ozymandias’s name and image are known and on the lips of the narrator, and the traveler is able to read and convey his grandiose proclamation three thousand years later on another continent. The tyranny of Ozymandias, then, was not entirely futile if his command could achieve this immortality of sorts. If the poem only illustrates the futility of a tyrant’s grandiose designs, it fails, for the very existence of the monument belies that point. Shelley was too skilled to produce a poem with such a shortcoming. The inadequacy must lie with the analysis.
The key to this conundrum lies in the second quatrain, lines 5 through 8. Ozymandias’s portrait, his “frown,” “wrinkled lip,” and “sneer of cold command… yet survive, stamp’d” on the stone. They are given life by the sculptor, who “well those passions read” and “mock’d them.” The great ruler, Ozymandias, is known only to the narrator because of the sculptor’s work, and only the sculptor’s portrayal conveys anything about the man behind the name.
Indeed, the narrator presumes the sculptor “mock’d” his master, rather than faithfully executing a portrait because the “cold command” in the portrayal seems too perfectly consistent with the grandiosity of the monument. The features are almost a caricature. And the narrator can “[t]ell that its sculptor well those passions read” because he, too, knows the sort of “heart” that commands for self-aggrandizement. The sculptor saw in Ozymandias what the narrator (and contemporary readers) saw in Napoleon.
“Ozymandias,” then, is about much more than the futility of tyranny. It is, first of all, about the power of art. Ozymandias’s immortality depends solely on the artist carving his portrait, and the decisions the artist makes in execution determines how the world sees the subject, and therefore controls his fate. The nameless artist, then, is truly more powerful than the monarch whose name is carved in stone.
But “Ozymandias,” too, is about the shared humanity that art conveys between individuals across time and space. The narrator presumes to declare his understanding of the thoughts of a nameless, long-dead artist because he has seen the same tyranny portrayed in his own time. He presumes the artist disdained and mocked that tyranny because he sees in the work a trueness to life that could only come from a critical eye. Truth opposes propaganda, and is found more often in mockery and caricature than in official portraits.
How much meaning is crammed into those fourteen lines! A master like Shelley unlocks the full potential of the sonnet, showing the form’s power and versatility in its full glory. “Ozymandias” remains one of the best-crafted sonnets, as much for its vivid description as for the breadth and depth of its meaning.
Republished with gracious permission from The Chained Muse (January 2020).
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The featured image is a closeup photograph of a Ramesses II Colossus in Luxor Temple and has been released into the public domain. It has been brightened for clarity and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.