Written sometime in late 1817 and published on January 11, 1818 in Leigh Hunt’s Examiner, “Ozymandias” is a poem that bears the Greek name for the Egyptian Pharaoh, Ramses II (13th century B.C.). In addition to his wars with the Hittites and Libyans, Ramses is known for his extensive building projects, as well as the many colossal statues of him throughout Egypt. His reign marked the height of Egypt’s imperial power. According to Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian of the 1st century B.C., the largest statue in Egypt bore the inscription, “I am Ozymandias, king of kings; if anyone wishes to know what I am and where I lie, let him surpass me in some of my exploits.” A controversy continues today regarding the 19th-century’s unquestioning reliance on the identity of Diodorus’s sources; few of his sources survive outside his own work, making it difficult to ascertain who or what is being quoted verbatim.
The 19th century developed a great interest in the ancient Egyptian culture, and that interest was the beginning of modern Egyptology. In the 1820s, Jean-François Champollion deciphered the Egyptian hieroglyphic writing on the newly discovered Rosetta Stone. Prior to Champollion’s discovery, the historical events of the early 19th century helped to awaken an interest in this ancient culture. When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, he was accompanied by a group of 150 scientists and artists who came along to survey the newly conquered territory. Furthermore, in 1806 Mohammed Ali, a soldier of fortune, installed himself as pasha (a man of great rank) of Egypt, and during his long reign, he encouraged artistic competition between the French and English, resulting in a flood of Egypt artifacts in both Europe and America.
Shelley’s own interest in Egyptology is manifested in many of his poems, such as Alastor; or, the Spirit of Solitude, where the young poet, who has gone in search of the origin of things, journeys to Egypt and Abyssinia, to the origin of writing. “His wander step, / Obedient to high thoughts, has visited / The awful ruins of the days of old: . . . Of Babylon, the eternal pyramids, Memphis and Thebes, and whatsoe’er of strange / Sculptured on alabaster obelisk, . . . or mutilated sphinx.
Ancient Egyptian culture was a civilization obsessed with death and personal survival, an obsession indicated by its foremost occupation—the construction of inscribed funerary monuments— pyramids, tombs, obelisks, stelae, and sarcophagi. It was a culture obsessed with time, and its fascination with the afterlife influenced all its earthly work and effort. These themes are prominent in “Ozymandias.” It is simultaneously a poem concerned with poetic effort and the anxiety of whether that effort will be remembered.
The most significant key to understanding Shelley’s agenda in “Ozymandias” resides in the verb “to mock.” To mock most frequently means to treat an object, person, or idea with contempt or ridicule. It also means to imitate that object, usually for derision, or to produce an insincere or counterfeit version of the original object. Interestingly, a rather obscure meaning of the word “mock,” the origin of which is unknown, identifies the word with a stump and root of a tree, or refers to a large stick of wood, especially that burned at Christmas. Thus, Shelley’s play on the word “mock” makes this poem, in one sense, a pun—a rhetorical device that depends on similarity of sound for a multiplicity of meaning. This device, like the subject matter of the poem, was familiar to the classical world and much discussed and written about in its rhetorical treatises. As will be seen, “Ozymandias” utilizes puns to explore a variety of issues concerning the ravages of time and the effacement of memory.
Beginning with the first line, the narrating voice creates doubt as to the chronological time in which his poem is set, stating that “I met a traveller from an antique land.” The word antique creates the first ambiguity in the poem. Is the traveler a tourist living in the 19th century who merely refers to Egypt as the ancient world or is there some time warp in which the narrator meets with an actual inhabitant of antiquity? At the very least, we are left a bit disconcerted as to the temporal location of this poem.
In the next two lines, we see Shelley’s adept and very oblique application of a “mock” as a stump of a tree, when the strange visitor reports that “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone / Stand in the desert.” At the same time, Shelley also introduces us to the multifaceted symbols and images he will employ to convey the erosive effects of time. First, time has “amputated” this monument so that its representational value, a sculpture of a former ruler of this very same country, is seriously curtailed. Second, this sculpture is to be found in the desert, an arid and lifeless terrain, and as it is made of stone, it is also very much of the desert as well, its stony composition reminding us that its physicality is inextricably linked to the same disintegrative processes that cause rocks to turn into silt. And finally, we are given additional details of this “amputation,” in a series of disturbing images: “Near them, on the sand, / Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown, / And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command.” Indeed, time has now grown violent, determined to annihilate any physical evidence that this person ever lived.
Most interesting is Shelley’s use of the word “visage” in reference to Ozymandias’s face, a word derived from the Latin visus, meaning sight or appearance, and in English defined not only as the front part of the face, but an aspect of the person’s true character and emotions. Through the multiple meanings of this word, Shelley introduces the theme of a former leader whose monument has fallen into ruin and disgrace, one who was arrogant, mean-spirited, and tyrannical. These images of Ramses II are all appropriate. He was a king of nonroyal origin, appointed at a very young age by his father Seti I; his reign was the last peak of Egyptian imperialism, an important fact for the radical Shelley, who opposed all forms of political tyranny and aggrandizement, most notably Napoleon’s political agenda.
Finally, Shelley uses one further meaning of the word visage, referring to something done merely for outward show, a falsehood of sorts. This indicates two important points: First, as the traveler tells us, the ancient sculptor did a brilliant job reading Ramses II (“its sculptor well those passions read / Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, / The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed”). Thus, art remains the repository of truth; despite Ramses’ obsessions with public works to celebrate his achievements, the artist captured his real character. Second, though the statue is in a state of ruin, the truth nevertheless remains with a tenacity that is as irrepressible as the one it represents, and this truth will indeed withstand all attempts to obliterate it. (“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.”)
And so Ozymandias’s decaying statue, exposed to the elements and to human scrutiny, is left “boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch[ing] far away.” This very same sand, commonly used to measure time, has curiously lost that ability in a poem that is ultimately timeless. Indeed, for a powerful political leader, such as Ramses II and Napoleon, what is recorded and memorialized in the chronicles of history are the deeds they performed and the character traits that motivated those actions.
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Duerksen, Ronald. Shelley’s Poetry of Involvement. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.
Hall, Jean. The Transforming Image: A Study of Shelley’s Major Poetry. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980.
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Source: Harold, Bloom, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House Publishers. 1985.