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Ozymandias
A Poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Settings
Characters
Meter and Rhyme
The Statue
Theme
Veiled Message to Britain
Annotated Text
Allusions
Literary Devices
Questions, Essay Topics
Shelley's Works: 1914 Edition
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2006
Revised in 2010.


Type of Work and Publication Information

......."Ozymandias" is a sonnet, a poem with fourteen lines. (For additional information on the sonnet form, click here.) Shelley completed the poem in 1817 and published it in England's The Examiner in 1818.

Settings

......."Ozymandias" has two settings. The first is the place where the narrator meets the traveler (line 1); the second is the setting in the traveler's tale about a crumbling statue of an Egyptian king (pharaoh). The statue is at the site of the ancient Egyptian capital, Thebes (about 420 miles south of Cairo). On the eastern side of the river was the city proper. On the western side was a vast cemetery, or city of the dead, where statues, temples, and tombs memorialized the pharaohs. Living at the site were priests who conducted religious services and artisans and laborers who designed, built, and maintained the monuments.

Characters

Narrator: The poet, Shelley. He assumes the role of auditor to the tale of the traveler (line 1) and tells the reader what the traveler said.
Traveler: A person from an ancient land who tells his tale to the narrator.
Ozymandias: Egyptian Pharaoh who is the subject of the traveler's tale. Ozymandias (also spelled Osymandias) is another name for one of Egypt's most famous rulers, Ramses II (or Ramses the Great). He was born in 1314 BC and ruled Egypt for 66 years as the third king of the Nineteenth Dynasty. His exact age at death is uncertain, but it was between 90 and 99. Ramses was a warrior king and a builder of temples, statues and other monuments. He was pharaoh at the time Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, as recounted in the second book of the Bible, Exodus (derived from the Greek word for departure). In Cecil B. de Mille's melodramatic film The Ten Commandments, the late Yul Brynner portrays Ramses, and Charlton Heston plays Moses.
Sculptor: The craftsman who sculpted the statue of Ramses.

Meter

.......The poem is in iambic pentameter, in which each line has five pairs of syllables. These pairs are called feet. The first syllable of each pair is unstressed; the second is stressed. The first two lines of the poem demonstrate the metric pattern of the poem.

....1.............2...............3..............4...............5
I MET..|..a TRAV..|..ler FROM..|..an AN..|..tique LAND

.......1....................2.....................3..................4..................5
Who SAID:..|.."Two VAST..|..and TRUNK..|..less LEGS..|..of STONE

Rhyme Scheme

.......The rhyme scheme is as follows: ababa cdcedefef. (See the color-coded rhyming words in the text below.)

The Statue

.......The statue of Ozymandias (Ramses II)—a crumbling relic in Shelley's poem—was originally fifty-seven feet high. An inscription on it told onlookers, "I am Ozymandias, king of kings," and challenged them to perform greater works than he did, according to Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian of the First Century BC.

Theme

.......The might and majesty of a king do not last; only great art endures. The statue, symbolizing the power and glory of the pharaoh, is crumbling. Yet the arrogant sneer on the "shattered visage" remains intact as a testament to the ability of the sculptor to read and capture the passions of his ruler. Thus, it is the pharaoh's lowly servant, the sculptor, who delivers the more powerful message here. The king's message"look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair"is an ironic indictment of his pride. 
.......Oddly, Shelley's themevalid as a general statementdoes not ultimately apply to Ozymandias, or Ramses II. For Ramses remains today perhaps the most famous of Egyptian pharaohs. After thousands of years, he continues to intrigue historians, archeologists, and other scholars. 
.......In addition, many of the monuments erected during his rule still stand. 

Veiled Message to Britain

.......Shelley's ridicule of the powerful Egyptian ruler and the pharaoh's arrogant boast on the pedestal was a veiled condemnation of the English government under King George III. Shelley abhorred oppressive monarchical government and favored revolution to overthrow it. He was inspired, in part, by the ideas of Thomas Paine, author of two documents that promoted the American Revolution: "Common Sense" and "Crisis."
.......In "Ozymandias," Shelley's focus on decay as the ultimate destiny of authoritarian rule was an oblique warning that Britain could expect the same if it did not change its ways. 

Ozymandias
By Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique1 land  
Who said:—Two vast and trunkless legs of stone  
Stand in the desert.2 Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage3 lies, whose frown  
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read4  
Which yet survive,5 stamp'd6 on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them7 and the heart that fed.8  
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias,9 king of kings:9   
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"10  
Nothing beside remains:11 round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,  
The lone and level sands stretch far away.12  

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.Notes

1....antique: Ancient.
2....desert: Sahara.
3....visage: Face.
4....well . . . read: The sculptor skillfully interpreted the king's feelings.
5....survive: The Pharaoh's passions (as indicated by the sneer and the frown) survive in the sculpted image.
6....stamp'd: sculpted, chiseled.
7....hand . . . them: Hand of the sculptor, who mocked the Pharaoh's passions by chiseling them into the stone.
8....heart . .  fed. The pharaoh's feelings (heart) fed the sculptor's creativity.
9....Ozymandias: See Characters, Ozymandias.
10...Look . . . despair: The pharaoh says his works are so magnificent that any attempts to equal or surpass their excellence will end only in despair. 
11...Nothing else remains at the site of sculpture. The pharaoh's boasts are now as empty as the empty and boundless desert surrounding the decaying statue..
12...See Number 11.

Literary Devices

.......Following are examples of literary devices Shelley uses in the poem. 

Alliteration
Repetition of a Vowel Sound

Two vast and trunkless legs
cold command
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
boundless and bare
lone and level sands stretch
Anastrophe
Inversion of the Normal Word Order
Well those passions read (normally, read those passions well)
Enjambement (Also Spelled Without the First e)
Carrying the sense of one line of verse over to the next line without a pause
    a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
"Whose frown" begins the enjambement.

Nothing beside remains: round the decay  
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, 
"Round the decay" begins the enjambement.

Synecdoche
Substitution of a part to stand for the whole, or the whole to stand for a part.
The hand that mock'd them
Study Questions and Essay Topics
  • Write an essay arguing for or against the thesis of the poem. Use Internet and library research sources.
  • Write an informative essay focusing on the colossal monuments constructed in Egypt during the reign of Ramses II (Ozymandias).
  • Write a short poem about a historical monument or statue.
  • Identify the lines in the poem expressed by the speaker/narrator, by the traveler, and by Ozymandias.
  • Write an informative essay another poem by Shelley.