Shelley’s “Ozymandias”

This is perhaps Shelley’s best-known and best-loved poem. It’s written in sonnet form and as is usual in this form it, contains two fundamental ideas. The first is the pride of the tyrant in his achievements and the second is the mutability of such achievements. It’s timeless appeal is in the way it sets the achievements of mortals in context of eternity.

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote Ozymandias when he was 25
Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote Ozymandias when he was 25
Shelleys' original version of Ozymandias
Shelleys’ original version of Ozymandias

The poem begins with the poet recounting what he’s been told by a traveller. Why Shelley uses this device is not clear perhaps it lends an extra sense of distance between the reader and the scene that is being described but surely that could have just as easily started off “I was a traveller… And saw…”

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.

The brilliance of this poem lies in the simplicity and clarity with which it communicates a profoundly serious idea, that we are nothing against the ravages of time.

The first six lines are purely descriptive of the scene in the desert where the remains of the statue of Ozymandias lie the desert. The words of the poem are as desolate as scene it describes:

Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies

The scene is described not in terms of the erosion of time, but rather we have a statue that has been shattered by some act of violence that has left only the legs and the head of the statue.

The poet then shifts attention to the “shattered visage” where the expressions that the sculptor captured still visible to the viewer.

Then the middle of the poem we have a line that has troubled most commentators:

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed

Most of the commentary agrees that this probably refers to the hand and heart of the sculptor but beyond that there is little agreement. It is possible to interpret the lines as saying that the sculptor has mocked his subject by portraying the “sneer of cold command”. But this introduces a line of interpretation that is out of keeping with the narrative direction of the poem which is about the transience of the achievements of even the greatest of us. The poem is not about the way an artist interprets their subject. So these lines remain a mystery.

Then comes the part of the poem that is called the Volta where the poem changes direction. The poem changes from being a description of the scene to providing the commentary that the subject must have dictated to the sculptor.

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Perhaps two of the best-known lines in English poetry. And rightly so what marvellously content dramatic irony.

Then the poet adds the final commentary from the Traveler

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

The final lines of the poem echo the lines from Marvell’s Coy Mistress

And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.

Andrew Marvell
Andrew Marvell

If the statue has been despoiled by the hand of man, the relentless wear of the sands of time will soon reduce it to the level nothingness of the desert.

One thought on “Shelley’s “Ozymandias”

  1. Tim. I started an earlier reply, but it suddenly disappeared from the screen. I am still not comfortable with the strange vagaries of Facebook. What I wanted to say was this: I have loved this poem since first reading it at Mosman Primary School in the early 1960s (Yes, yes, we are about the same age!). Without going into too much literary criticism (and as one who did his postgraduate studies in Social Ecology) I always thought that the line “The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed” delightfully referred to the simple observation of the author that, like any human being, there were both people who thought unkindly about Ozymandias and people who derived joy and inspiration from Ozymandias. Of course, having now retired and with plenty of time to reflect, I realise that Shelley was mysteriously trying to warn us about the dangers and emptiness of the tide of corporate culture and management babble that would rush like a tidal wave over us in the 1990s and 2000s. it is great shame that we had to let it wash over and drown us as we struggled to preserve some moral and intellectual integrity at the same time as earn a living and feed a family etc. At the moment, my cats, Doris and Alice, (moggies extraordinaire), asleep on the bookshelf above the computer, stretch, yawn, remark “Do you humans understand nothing?” before returning to cosmic feline dreams. I am not sure how to answer them.

    Cats aside, Tim, I want to thank you for highlighting this poem and reigniting the imaginative spark!

    Travel well, my friend and colleague in the south.

    Cheers, DBS.

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