While I may not be a traveler from an antique land, I will tell you about Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley. In this article, we will discuss the poet, some of the Ozymandias meanings and themes, and the story behind the poem’s creation in the first place, alongside an in-depth Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley analysis. If this famous Romantic poem is one that interests you, then let’s have a look at why it is considered to be one of the best poems from the Romantic era!
Table of Contents
- 1 Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley Analysis
- 2 Ozymandias Summary Points
- 3 Biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley
- 4 An In-Depth Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley Analysis
- 5 Ozymandias Themes and Meanings
- 6 The Story Behind Ozymandias
- 7 Frequently Asked Questions
Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley Analysis
|Type of Poem
|Loose iambic pentameter
|The dissolution of power
Ozymandias is often considered to be one of the most notable poems from the Romantic era. This poem, in simple terms, examines power and how it dissolves as time marches on. However, these ideas can be taken far further. This is what we will do during this Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley analysis. We will perform a line-by-line analysis of the poem to show some of the ideas that are explored, but before we get to any of that, let’s first have a look at an Ozymandias summary.
Ozymandias (1817) Percy Bysshe Shelley; See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Ozymandias Summary Points
Before we get into our properly in-depth Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley analysis, let’s first go over a few Ozymandias summary points before we proceed. An understanding of the Ozymandias meanings and themes will be explored in far more detail in the below sections, but for those who may not have the time to read it all, here are a few short points.
- This poem is about power and impermanence. The primary Ozymandias themes have to do with how those in power will eventually have all the symbols and results of their power stripped away with time. This can also be related to humanity’s achievements in general.
- This poem uses a dialogue structure. The use of inverted commas to indicate speech is relatively uncommon in many instances of poetry, but the Ozymandias meaning and message are conveyed through a character that the speaker is listening to. This person is described as a traveler that the speaker encounters.
- This poem is a non-standard sonnet. This poem is structured around a fourteen-line layout and so it is an example of a sonnet, but the rhyme scheme of Ozymandias does not allow it to fit into any usual sonnet structure. The rhyme scheme of this particular poem is.
This has been a brief Ozymandias summary, and while these points can be beneficial, it would be better to read the entire Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley analysis in the sections below. However, if one does not have time for such things, it is very understandable.
For those who do wish to proceed, let’s have a quick look at a biography of the poet behind this poem before we jump into the analysis itself.
Biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley
|1792 – 1822
|Place of Birth
|Warnham, United Kingdom
Percy Bysshe Shelley was an English poet who was a major figure during the Romantic era. While he did not achieve much fame during his lifetime, after his death, he came to be seen as one of the most important Romantic writers, and many of his works went on to become seen as some of the most integral to understanding Romanticism in general. His personal life was also marked by a desire to find true love and to elevate various social justice issues.
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1819) by Alfred Clint; After Amelia Curran, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Shelley was also born into wealth, but he had considerable difficulties in his life because of various issues with his family and his own health. In addition to this, he faced backlash for a variety of his beliefs and actions. For instance, he was an atheist at a time when such things were extremely frowned upon, and his political views and refusal to conform to ordinary social conventions led to friction between himself and aspects of society at large.
One of the other interesting personal details of this poet’s life was his second wife. He was married to Mary Shelley, the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft. She is generally best known as the author of Frankenstein, one of the most influential books in the English language.
This could also indicate that her fame has massively eclipsed his, and this is not all that common when it comes to the famous male Romantics and those married to them.
An In-Depth Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley Analysis
Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley is one of the most famous poems from the Romantic era and a stunning example of the kind of work that was often produced during the period. This particular poem is also notable because it makes use of an easier-to-understand language that was not as common in many instances of Romantic poetry. There are a great many poems in this tradition that make use of far more complex language, but the ideas in this poem are usually easier to grasp.
Before we move on to the in-depth Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley analysis, we should first have a look at a few other elements of the poem. For instance, what kind of a poem is it in the first place? Ozymandias is an example of a sonnet. However, it is also an irregular sonnet. The standard version of this form generally makes use of a specific rhyme scheme that is particular to that variety of sonnets, such as a Shakespearean or Petrarchan sonnet. In the case of this poem, the structure is somewhat reminiscent of both of these forms in different ways. For instance, it makes use of the alternating introductory lines of the Shakespearean and the sestet back half of the Petrarchan structure.
Draft of Ozymandias (1817) by Percy Bysshe Shelley; Percy Bysshe Shelley, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
All of this is to say that Ozymandias is not a sonnet with a standard sonnet rhyme scheme. So, what is the rhyme scheme of Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley then? The structure of this rhyme is arranged as: ABABACDC EDEFEF. While there is an octave and sestet structure, it is all arranged as a single stanza. This is also why the analysis below does not separate the sections into stanzas but instead into the more nebulous concept of the “section”. It should be noted that this kind of separation is a highly artificial one that is only here to serve the purposes of the analysis. The poem should be read as a single stanza even if the general sections could be separated. Although we have not separated them according to an octave and sestet structure but have instead separated them into three distinct sections.
When it comes to the metrical layout and structure of the poem, it typically uses iambic pentameter. This is a common form of meter that is used in the vast majority of the most famous sonnets in the world. So, the fact that Percy Bysshe Shelley decided to make use of it is likely as a means of continuing the standard tradition of the metrical form of the sonnet.
However, the rhyme scheme does vary, so why one was varied and the other was not is something we will likely never know, but we do not need to know the reasons for it to enjoy this poem for what it is.
The final point to mention before we enter into the full Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley analysis below is that the poem makes use of a dialogue structure. The speaker very quickly gives way to someone else who tells him the tale of the statue of Ozymandias. The use of inverted commas to signify dialogue is mostly an unusual thing to find in poetry, as many poems eschew dialogue, but it is not without precedent. Now that we have gone over these few points that should be understood and internalized, we can make our way into our line-by-line Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley analysis.
I met a traveler 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:
The first section that we will examine is, by far, the lengthiest of all the sections of this poem. We are having a look at the opening octave plus the final line that leads into the sestet. The reason it has been separated will be made clear in time. The first line of the poem, which leads into the second line through enjambment (which also indicates that we should read this poem as if there are no breaks between the various lines), is the only part of the poem that is not found within inverted commas.
This means that this first line, alongside the first two words of the second line, serves as our setup for the remainder of the poem. It tells that the speaker met “a traveler from an antique land”, and while this is a strange way to phrase this, it is generally understandable. Which countries are often seen as those that come from an antique period? We can usually identify places like ancient Greece, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Rome as the primary “antique lands”, and in this case, we are looking at Egypt.
The title of the poem gives this away as Ozymandias is the Greek name for Ramses II. This figure was seen as one of the greatest in the history of ancient Egypt and an immensely important figure. He was a great conqueror and spread the culture of Egypt during his reign. This is external information that is important to have when trying to understand Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley. If you are entirely unfamiliar with it, then the exact meanings of the poem can be harder to ascertain.
This is why, before we proceed, we should stop to talk about the statue that serves as the primary poetic subject in this poem. This poem tells us about a statue, and that statue is a real statue that partially collapsed. It was a statue of the eponymous Ozymandias. The poem was written when this particular statue came to be more widely known in Britain after part of it wound up in the British Museum. It is considered to be one of the greatest statues produced in ancient Egypt, and it has become widely known since it was uncovered.
With that explained, let us proceed. The opening setup gives way to this traveler from Egypt who now tells the speaker and, by extension, us, about the statue. This entire section serves to describe that statue. It opens with the large legs made of stone but quickly transitions to the next image of the “shattered visage” that lies beside it. This is the head of the statue. We are being told here, in these first few lines, that the statue has broken apart. The head and the legs are entirely disconnected from one another.
The statue lies broken, and we are also presented with the image of this broken statue lying in the sand. The image of sand, and its lack of fertility, can be used as a means of representing decay. It has not fallen onto the grass and become overgrown. It has simply remained there. Untouched and uncatered to for so long that it has nearly become one with the sand. The image of sand and the nothingness that surrounds it will be a motif that recurs later in the poem.
From the fifth line, we are presented with a description of the head itself.
The term “wrinkled lip” is used to present an image of this monarch who has been immortalized as a statue as someone who frowns down at his subjects. He has the “sneer of cold command”, and so we can immediately tell that the statue does not represent a jovial or happy ruler. Instead, this is likely a cold and detached leader. Shortly after this description, we are told that the sculptor who made this statue must have understood the ruler to have been able to create such a perfect representation of that sneer.
The mention of the sculptor is an important one. The sculptor would have been a citizen who was under Ozymandias. He likely knew the monarch’s ways because he had been a subject under him. This is also why we are soon given the image of “the hand that mocked them” as a way to show that the man whom this statue represents could be a cruel leader who ruled over them with an iron fist. The imagery of the hand gives way to the idea of the “heart that fed”, and this could be seen as something of a carrot-and-stick style statement. The ruler kept his subjects in line through force but also ensured that they were fed and, therefore, dependent and subservient to him.
None of this portrays a particularly flattering image of Ozymandias as a leader. However, we are soon to hear from the long-dead mouth of Ozymandias in the next section. The final line of this section introduces us to a pedestal that sits beside the statue. On that pedestal, there are words. These words will now be conveyed to us, and these words tell us a lot about the kind of person that Ozymandias was.
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
This second section of our analysis will be the shortest by far, but it is also an incredibly important part of the poem as a whole. This is the lynchpin around which the entire message of the poem is focused. While the first section above was focused on a description of the glory of this statue, this section examines what is written on this statue. There may not be all that many words on this pedestal, but they are potent words.
It opens with a simple declaration by Ozymandias himself before he declares himself to be the “King of Kings”. The use of capitals here presents us with a more religious image. This term has often been used to describe certain figures within a religious context and, in terms of the context of ancient Egypt, this does also make sense. The pharaohs were seen as human incarnations of actual gods. They were gods. So, Ozymandias seeing and presenting himself as the King of Kings makes complete sense.
Ramessu II (1907) by Henry Holiday; Henry Holiday, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The second line is where the most important point is made. He refers to his “Works”. This capitalized term refers to the accomplishments of his life. He built his empire far greater than before, and the area surrounding that statue was covered in the fruits of the labor of those who were under him. He wishes for everyone who sees this statue to know that everything around that statue came from his work, from his labor, from his leadership. Everything belongs to him, and he is a great king!
The other part of that line further solidifies this. He refers to those who read this as potentially mighty enemies who look upon his works but rather than him being scared of them, they should “despair” to see the great Works that he has produced around him. He sees himself as a grand ruler who could never be toppled, and all must look at what he has created in this world so that they can feel small and weak in comparison to him.
However, this statement stands in stark juxtaposition to what is beside that statue.
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
The final section of the poem provides a description and shows us that there is nothing at all around that place. The supposed “Works” of Ozymandias are nothing but sand and decay. The great statue is even described as a “colossal Wreck”. It is broken and dismembered. The supposed eternal strength and power of the once-great monarch who was Ozymandias has been reduced to nothing at all.
The alliterative expression “boundless and bare” is used to show the sheer scope of the nothingness that surrounds that statue. Ozymandias may have once created a great and powerful empire, but that has long since passed from the world. It is gone now. Further alliterative statements are used to reinforce this like “lone and level” and “sands stretch”, In these last few moments of the poem, we are being shown a beat-for-beat breakdown of the desolation that surrounds what had once been a symbol of power and authority.
The poem has come to an end, but one last point worthy of note is that we have returned to this image of the sand. And something that is also interesting about sand is its association with time. It is through the sands of time that we all wade, and the sands of time were not kind to the statue or legacy of Ozymandias. He may have accomplished many great things during his reign and life, but those things are nothing now. They are wiped clean by the eternal sands that lay bare and boundless in every direction.
And with that final image and note, we have reached the conclusion of our in-depth Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley analysis.
Ozymandias Themes and Meanings
When it comes to the various Ozymandias themes on display, we can quite easily ascertain them by reading the poem as it is not a particularly complex poem. While the text does effectively serve as a simple description, the feelings that said description evokes in the reader are something that needs to be kept in mind and reflected upon to ensure that an adequate understanding is reached.
The poem, as has been explored in the Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley analysis above, shows us a statue and the desolation that can be found around it. We are given a series of grand descriptions of this destroyed statue followed by a self-aggrandizing statement from the monarch who was immortalized in that statue. However, that is then juxtaposed against the utter nothingness that surrounds the statue.
The supposed greatness of the statue and, by extension, the man after whom the statue was sculpted, has fallen away. There is no longer any grand power behind the man who was Ozymandias. His empire has fallen away and even the statue that was meant to remain long after he died has broken apart. The power that Ozymandias once possessed has been reduced to nothing because of the endless march of the sands of time.
His power was temporary or even illusionary. Did it ever even exist? He may have once been great, but no one remembers his rule. We only know about it because of history books. And many do not read the history books. So, his so-called accomplishments have been washed away. And that is the central Ozymandias meaning. The accomplishments of humans, especially those who think of themselves as great and grand figures, will eventually be forgotten.
Our toils, goals, achievements, and everything else will eventually vanish. While some small number of people continue to be remembered, such as ancient Greek philosophers or great poets from antiquity, there are only a handful, and that handful of people will also eventually be forgotten. Time continues to march on.
This is what Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley wants to tell us.
The Story Behind Ozymandias
Some poems have stories behind them. In the case of Ozymandias, this is very much the case. The poem was written in 1817 after Percy Bysshe Shelley and his friend and fellow poet Horace Smith decided to have a poetry contest with one another. The idea for this contest was that it would be about the exact same topic. Both of these poems would be about Ozymandias or Rameses II.
The general theme of these two poems, which are both called Ozymandias, has to do with the impermanence of power and the rule of tyrannical leaders. However, the poem by Horace Smith is only really remembered because of its connection to Shelley’s version. However, I have found that a story like this can help bring a poem to life.
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1908); Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons
When I used to tell this story to my students, it gave them a different kind of interest in the poem. Knowing these kinds of small, if technically unimportant, details can go a long way to helping someone engage with a piece of work. It is also similar to a different kind of competition that led to the writing of Frankenstein, which was written by Percy Bysshe Shelley’s wife, Mary Shelley.
This poem is generally considered to be one of the best from the English Romantic period, and a poem that is immensely worthy of our time and attention. In this article, we performed an Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley analysis, alongside a discussion of some of the general themes and ideas of the poem, a biography of the poet in question, and a few extra details that help bring it back down to earth. Hopefully, this analysis has aided you in your understanding of the poem, but perhaps you have some of your own interpretations, and they are also worth exploring and discussing.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley?
This is a poem that forms part of the tradition of English Romanticism. The poem is technically a sonnet, although it uses an unusual rhyme scheme. The poem is focused on an understanding of power and how time erodes all of the so-called accomplishments of great rulers. The poem can be seen as a dark take on the realities of the world, but it has resonated with many over the years to become one of the best-known examples of a Romantic poem.
Who Was Percy Bysshe Shelley?
He was an English poet and philosopher. Percy Bysshe Shelley was not well-known in his life, but he achieved fame after his death to become one of the best-known Romantic poets and a titanic figure in the movement. He was also a figure who focused on social justice issues in his life and became something of a social outcast because of his atheism and political beliefs.
Who Was Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Wife?
It isn’t very often that a particularly famous writer has a famous writer for a spouse, but that is the case with Percy Bysshe Shelley. He married Mary Shelley in 1816, a few years before his death, and she would eventually come to be known as the writer of Frankenstein. This also means, interestingly, that the wife of one of the most famous Romantic writers has probably become more famous than her husband. This is not all that common in literary circles.
What Is the Rhyme Scheme of Ozymandias?
When it comes to the rhyme scheme of Ozymandias, it is best to first state that the unusual nature of said rhyme scheme arises from the fact that it is a sonnet. Many sonnets tend to use a number of specific and set rhyme schemes, but that is not the case with this poem. The rhyme scheme of Ozymandias is as follows: ABABACDC EDEFEF. This is not a particularly common rhyme scheme and was created specifically for this poem.
What Are the Ozymandias Themes?
Ozymandias is a fascinating poem and a great text to discuss. This is especially the case with the Ozymandias themes on display. The poem is focused on the idea of power, and looks at those who have been in power and the aftermath of their power. Specifically, it examines the way in which their power, and the symbols of that power, vanish with time. The poem wants us to examine the ultimately fleeting nature of human accomplishment because it will all fade away with time.
Justin van Huyssteen is a freelance writer, novelist, and academic originally from Cape Town, South Africa. At present, he has a bachelor’s degree in English and literary theory and an honor’s degree in literary theory. He is currently working towards his master’s degree in literary theory with a focus on animal studies, critical theory, and semiotics within literature. As a novelist and freelancer, he often writes under the pen name L.C. Lupus.
Justin’s preferred literary movements include modern and postmodern literature with literary fiction and genre fiction like sci-fi, post-apocalyptic, and horror being of particular interest. His academia extends to his interest in prose and narratology. He enjoys analyzing a variety of mediums through a literary lens, such as graphic novels, film, and video games.
Justin is working for artincontext.org as an author and content writer since 2022. He is responsible for all blog posts about architecture, literature and poetry.
Cite this Article
Justin, van Huyssteen, ““Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley Analysis – A Deep Dive.” Art in Context. November 27, 2023. URL: https://artincontext.org/ozymandias-by-percy-bysshe-shelley-analysis/
van Huyssteen, J. (2023, 27 November). “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley Analysis – A Deep Dive. Art in Context. https://artincontext.org/ozymandias-by-percy-bysshe-shelley-analysis/