Thoughts on ‘Ozymandias’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley

by Marie Marshall

I have been in conversation with a friend – I could say I met a traveller from an antique land – about Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous poem ‘Ozymandias’. I shall let you share a small handful of my thoughts from that conversation. First of all let me transcribe the poem for you to read:

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”.

This is probably Shelley’s best known and best loved poem. It is often said to be Shelley in sobriety; the ecstatic artist has been quieted, the revolutionary parlayed into the observer of history, the poet distanced from his subject. I believe otherwise. I see Shelley deeply engaged in this poem.

Shelley is often seen as a poet with a multiple and fragmented identity which emerges in the various personae of the ‘speakers’ of his poems, as well as being imposed on him from outside – the Victorian image of the ethereal versifier, for example, as fostered by his widow, is one such imposition. There is Shelley the inflammatory radical, doling out measured insults to the head of state, ‘an old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king’. There is Shelley the outraged father, spitting barely concealed bile at the Lord Chancellor. There is Shelley the Romantic observer of the Sublime, the inaccessible ‘secret Strength of things’ at Mont Blanc. There is Shelley the grasper for ultimate inspiration in ‘Ode to the West Wind’, begging ‘Be thou, Spirit fierce, my spirit! be thou me, impetuous one!’

To me this is not a random kaleidoscope, not a tumult, not a product of an unstable psyche. To be sure Shelley’s poetry develops through his career, changes, but it remains true, artistically resolute throughout. He is simply not a one-trick pony. He is clever and accomplished technically – hell, who these days could successfully write a wild, ecstatic poem and do it in five cantos of terza rima sonnet form, and make it good?* Like any of us, his mood can change, he can sit and look at things from a different perspective, he can step outside his own thoughts and emotions and observe them as much as he can experience them in the moment.

In ‘Ozymandias’ there appear to be four distinct voices. People normally identify three. Firstly there is the author/speaker; this voice is most often attributed to Shelley himself, and the fact that he only allows the speaker one line is held up as evidence of detachment. Secondly there is the traveller from the antique land, whose taking-over of the narration of the poem is considered to be further indication of objectivity, of Shelley’s status as an observer of history rather than a participant. This voice is contained in quotation marks, deliberately, and again this is taken to indicated distancing. Thirdly there is the voice of Ozymandias – Pharaoh Rameses II – whose inscription raises him above kings, commanding all who consider themselves to be powerful to look on his works and despair. The fourth voice is the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, the supposed inscription being Shelley’s rendering of a phrase in Diodorus’s historical book on ancient Egypt. Two things should be noted here, firstly that Diodorus used other sources for his own historical works, and secondly that imagination played a part in classical history, with the result that what famous figures ‘said’ is often what the historian felt they ought to have said.

‘Ozymandias’ is taken to be a work of political satire, in particular a retrospective gaze at the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte. Ancient Rome took the best part of two millennia to go from the expulsion of the Tarquins to the fall of Constantinople; France realised its equivalent during the adulthood of a single man, Napoleon. The poem is considered a warning to those who would carve out temporal power for themselves, to the effect that such power will not outlive them. it will fall as surely as the statue of Rameses II fell, worn away by the sands of the desert and by time.

But as I said, I believe that to be a superficial reading, and that Shelley is deeply engaged emotionally and intellectually in this poem. It is a self-referential and introspective work. The second voice, the traveller, is no one external to Shelley. He has given his pen to an inner voice of his own, which will pass judgment on him. I see this because many of Shelley’s familiar themes are actually expressed in this poem. The Sublime is there. Some of it is found in artifice rather than nature, but the words ‘vast’ and ‘colossal’** are there and note a sense of awe that is unmistakable even in a ‘wreck’. The Sublime in nature is in the ‘boundless’ desert, as awesome in its silence and ‘secret strength’ as is Mont Blanc, as relentless and powerful as the West Wind. Imagination is there – imagination of Diodorus on the one hand, and that of Shelley on the other. The face of the statue of Rameses is impassive, yet Shelley imagines a ‘frown’ and a ‘sneer of cold command’. Striving for greatness is there, as Napoleon the revolutionary turned emperor strove, as Shelley the revolutionary turned poet strove when he yearned to be made one with the West Wind, to be, in his artistic power, the Spring to the West Wind’s Winter. Politics certainly is there, even if direct and inflammatory agitprop is not.

But subtly Shelley’s inner voice of judgment mocks, as the hand that framed the statue ‘mocked’***. Ruefully Shelley must acknowledge that he, like all the Romantics, could not quite achieve the quasi-divine power of expression that he wished to. The Sublime desert, the expression of the unattainable, stretches far away.

Because this is all expressed in a short, tightly-wrought sonnet, it is missed by many readers. Scroll back and read it again, think of Shelley’s inner voice, still and small, gently charging him with trying to steal fire from heaven, think of Shelley himself as Ozymandias the failed worker of mighty works, think of him also as the sculptor whose stonework is now brought as low as the king’s power, and think on. When the poem has worked on you, play the arguments out in your own mind…


*I hear some resolute modernists counter ‘Who would want to?’

**From the Colossus at Rhodes, one of the ancient Wonders of the World.

***In the context of the poem, the word has the likely meaning of sculpting, rather as we would use the term ‘mock-up’ today, and not necessarily the meaning of scorn, though that is an implication too, a double-meaning…