Throughout history, great leaders have come and gone, but great poems outlast them all. In this lesson, you’ll learn about one of Percy Shelley’s greatest poems, ‘Ozymandias.’
In this lesson, we’re going to talk about one of the most famous poems in the English language (which I feel like I say in every video, but I’m doing videos on them because they’re famous, so bear with me). Percy Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ is the target of today’s video. The poem was published in 1818; it’s a sonnet, which means it’s only 14 lines. Great news for us! We love sonnets. They’re short; they’re always 14 lines long. This is also called an ekphrastic poem. Ekphrastic just means that it’s a poem about another work of art. In this case, it’s about a statue. So, remember that – ekphrastic poem, just a term to keep in your head. It’s got a ‘k’ in it; that’s kind of a neat thing for a word to have. Since it’s so short, we’re going to take it apart and look at its fantastic diction – which is basically just word choice – and imagery. We’re also going to look at the themes of the poem, which tend to be things like fleeting power, arrogance, the power of art – lots of good stuff like that.
Two Poets Compete
Before we get to the poem, we’re going to talk about how it was written. It’s 1817. You’re Percy Shelley. You have a friend named Horace Smith. What you really want to do is destroy him at Mario Kart, but you can’t because it’s 1817. You have two options: You can either wait 200 years for the N64 to be invented (people are probably rolling over in their graves that I didn’t say Super Nintendo, but I’m not that old), or you can find a different way to compete. Fortunately, you’re a poet, so you go for the latter, and Horace is a stockbroker, so maybe he’s not quite up to snuff. You decide that you’re going to challenge him to a sonnet writing contest, which is kind of like getting your dad to play Mario Kart with you. Mine always has that little wrong-way guy hanging over his car throughout the course. Mom’s great at video games; my dad is not so much. My dad’s like Horace at sonnet writing.
There are conflicting reports of why they decided to write about Ozymandias. You probably care more about who that was; it’s kind of a weird name. Ozymandias was a real guy. You probably know him better as Ramses II, one of Egypt’s most powerful kings. You also might know him as the pharaoh who was ruling when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt. (Any love for The Prince of Egypt movie? I hope so; it’s great.) The name Ozymandias is a Greek version of Ramses’ throne name, which is Usermaatre Stepenre. I think you’ll agree that Ozymandias is a little bit catchier than that at least, even though it is quite unwieldy on its own.
As for the poems, they both had them published in a guy named Leigh Hunt’s magazine; it was called The Examiner. That was in 1818. Shelley’s poem, like I said, really famous, and it’s still talked about today. Smith’s poem is mostly notable for being on the losing end of the sonnet contest. (I guess he fell off the rainbow road one too many times.) And for those of you who think ‘Ozymandias’ is a mouthful of a title, Smith’s poem was called ‘On a Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below,’ which is probably a good indication of why we’re talking about Shelley’s poem and not Smith’s.
So, the poem itself – let’s dive right in. We’re going to be doing something called close reading, which is what it sounds like: looking really closely at the details in the poem. It does not mean that we read it really close to our face. That’s just a joke that people make sometimes. It begins:
I met a traveller from an antique land
It’s interesting already – right – because of the diction (like I said before, that’s just a fancy word for word choice). We have a ‘traveller,’ which could just be a superfluous detail about the person. You could just say ‘I met this guy,’ but ‘traveller’ is more interesting; it makes us think. And he’s not just any traveler. He’s a traveler from an ‘antique land,’ which is an odd phrase in itself. ‘Antique’ implies what? It implies old, but it also implies valuable, and it’s usually in regard to an object. If you have an antique, maybe you’re going on Antiques Roadshow to find out if it’s worth a fortune or to find out it’s really only worth $2, and you got ripped off. So, this traveler is from a land that is antique. It’s not just old; it’s not just ancient. It kind of has this added connotation of being regarded as really valuable or interesting or perhaps having produced a lot of antiques. It has this removed, vaguely mythical quality to it that’s different from simply saying ‘old’ or ‘ancient’; it gives it this other level of meaning. That’s why diction is so important; it can do that. If you pick the right word, you can add layers of meeting to it. If you said ‘I met this dude that came from a really old place,’ that is not as good as what Shelley said. (Maybe that was what Smith wrote that was so awful.) Anyway, Shelley goes on. He says:
Who said: ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert.‘
That is an image for you. If you wanted to take a class on how to write poetry, just think about that image. That image is fantastic. He’s talking about Egyptian ruins, and he literally means that there are two stone legs with nothing attached to them that are standing there in the desert. He goes on to describe them. He says:
Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies,
As if the legs weren’t enough, now we get a ‘shatter’d visage.’ A ‘visage’ is just a face. So, it’s the head of the statue, plunked down next to the legs. It’s half buried in the sand. Again, we’ve got this diction question: Why is it ‘visage’ and not just ‘face?’ That would be easier, wouldn’t it, if he just wrote ‘face?’ He doesn’t. It sounds kind of fancy. I guess that’s one reason. Poets like that. But kind of in the same vein as ‘antique’ instead of ‘old’, it works differently in your brain to produce different associations, basically. If you think about it, ‘visage’ sounds a lot like ‘vision,’ doesn’t it? That’s because they have the same Latin root (vis-) that comes from the same Latin word, the verb that means ‘to see.’ So, this word for ‘face’ has this associated meaning of ‘vision,’ and it emphasizes that you’re looking at it. But it also brings out this idea that it might be looking at you. By using ‘visage’ instead of ‘face,’ he gives this connotation of seeing to this face – it’s looking at you; you’re looking at it – that maybe you wouldn’t get if he just said ‘face.’ Let’s hear more about this visage. It goes:
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
We have three descriptions of the face here. But we don’t hear about the eyes or the nose or anything else. We only hear about the mouth. He mentions a ‘frown,’ he mentions a ‘wrinkled lip’ and he mentions a ‘sneer.’ ‘Frown’ and ‘sneer’ are expressions; a ‘wrinkled lip’ is, I guess, an expression or just a sad characteristic of his lips. He could have used just one of those images (I guess he needs chapstick), but piling them together gives them extra weight and really puts this emphasis on the mouth. Then he notes that the mouth is demonstrating ‘cold command.’ This guy, Ozymandias, was a super powerful dude who ruled Egypt from when he was a teenager until his 90s, which was a long time to live back then. You don’t rule an empire for that long by being nice. You do it by issuing lots of nasty edicts. Focusing on the mouth, the ‘talking part’ of the face and its unpleasant expression adds to this idea that the mouth is the important part of him. That’s the ruling part of him, essentially. Now, those features were doing something. They:
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things
This is an interesting pair of lines. We went from the powerful Ozymandias to the sculptor who created the statute. While the king was sneering and had ‘cold command,’ the sculptor is being praised for having read the king’s expression well. He read the ‘passions’ of the king, and it’s the sculptor’s work that survives, while the king is long dead. All of these sculptures from ancient times are still around, and we often use them to learn about their subjects. But what Shelley is saying, by focusing on the sculptor, is that we should give more notice to the artist. This could be seen as a Romantic notion; the notion of the power of art is what the Romantics were really into. Great art survives even when the leaders don’t. Back in the poem, we learn more about what the sculptor conveyed. It says:
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
We’re learning more about Ozymandias. Shelley conveys the nature of his rule with these two simple phrases. First, ‘the hand that mock’d them’ describes the ruler’s arrogance toward his people. ‘The heart that fed’ might be getting at humanity and compassion. But he’s also saying that the sculptor is conveying all of this – in a broken statue, so it’s still the sculptor’s skill that’s really at hand here. We get a more direct description of Ozymandias. It says:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
He is not modest. More than that, he’s describing himself as the ‘king of kings,’ which is the nickname that usually is reserved for Jesus. And he issues this incredible boast: ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ which is basically the ancient Egyptian version of Kanye West bragging about, you know, everything he does. He’s saying that not only is my empire awesome but it should make the most powerful other leaders despair because of its awesomeness: ‘I’m going to let you finish, but Egypt was the best empire of all time.’ But Percy Shelley doesn’t end the poem here. He leaves us with some closing lines that really drive it home:
Nothing beside remains: Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
We began with this desolate image of the ‘trunkless legs.’ Now, at the end, we return to the same scene, the same sands in the desert and whatnot. Those ‘works’ Ozymandias bragged about are nowhere to be found. Nothing remains of his empire. His statue is not just a wreck but a ‘colossal wreck,’ and the same could be said of his empire. Look at the other words Shelley uses – ‘decay,’ ‘bare,’ ‘lone’. The king is dead, and even his statue is left alone and in ruins. While we’re used to these amazing sites in Egypt being ruins, Ozymandias probably thought he was infallible. I mean, he lived to be 90; even today that’s impressive. But now, all that he built is just ruins in the desert.
While Shelley was fascinated with ancient Egypt (obviously, or else he wouldn’t have written this poem), he was also a revolutionary in 19th-century Britain. And he wasn’t a fan of the British habit of spreading their empire around. So, there’s a parallel he might be drawing between the hubris, or the boldness, boastfulness, of Great Britain and the arrogance of Ozymandias. Henry Kissinger has a line: ‘Every civilization that has ever existed has ultimately collapsed.’ It’s a sobering truth about the fleeting nature of power. And like Great Britain, Shelley is suggesting that the ultimate fall of the Egyptian empire is even more bittersweet because of the arrogance of Ozymandias.
It’s like the Titantic. Lots of ships sink. If I built a canoe and it sank on the first trip, it wouldn’t be news. I hope I could swim back to shore. But the Titanic was billed as unsinkable. The hubris of its owners and its captain made the sinking even more significant. ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ is a big statement that makes the ruins even sadder because it didn’t come true. But there’s also a little bit of deliberate irony here because it came true in a way that he didn’t intend. We do despair, but we don’t despair because his empire was so great and we’re scared of him. We despair because he was so wrong about the fate of what he built. Maybe the ‘mighty’ – you might suggest if you stretched it far enough, the higher ups in Britain – despair because they see that their empires can’t last either. Political power is left in ruins, but the work of this artist is the only thing that remains. The sculptor was low on the totem pole in Ozymandias’ time, but the sculptor’s work is still being celebrated and is still incredibly vibrant even as a ruin. It’s the only thing we can see.
This fits so well with the themes of the Romantics, especially Shelley. It celebrates beauty; it celebrates the power of the imagination. While Ozymandias ruled with an iron fist, the sculptor really created the timeless work, the thing that lasted long after his death.
In summary, ‘Ozymandias’ is Percy Shelley’s great poem about Ramses II, the Egyptian pharaoh who also went by the name Ozymandias. Or more specifically, it’s about the ruins of a statue of this king. (What kind of poem is that? It’s an ekphrastic poem.) It’s a sonnet that explores the fleeting nature of power against the timelessness of art. It uses evocative diction and imagery to convey a really complex message in a very short 14 lines. So, that’s ‘Ozymandias.’
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Explain why Shelley wrote the sonnet ‘Ozymandias’ and who Ozymandias was
- Describe the basic meaning of the poem as well as the diction and imagery evoked in it
- Understand the deeper meaning of the poem as it relates to empires and power