OzymandiasI 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 history of the poem
The poem was written around 1818 and published in England’s The Examiner. 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. Shelley evidently wrote this sonnet at Marlow in friendly competition with Horace Smith, whose own sonnet of the same name was published Feb. 1, 1818, also in The Examiner. Ozymandias comes from Osymandias, Greek name for the Egyptian king Rameses II (1304-1237 BC). When breaking down the word "Ozymandas" in the original greek, we realize that the kingdom no longer exists. Ozy comes from "ozium," which means to breath, or air. Mandias comes from the Greek "mandate," which means to rule.
The poem’s narrator presents the reader with a stunning vision of the tomb of Ozymandias, another name for Rameses II, King of Egypt during the 13th century B.C. Shelley emphasizes that to a modern viewer this tomb tells quite a different tale than that which Ozymandias had hoped it would. The king evidently commissioned a sculptor to create an enormous sphinx to represent his enduring power, but the traveler comes across only a broken heap of stones ravaged by time. The first-person poetic persona states that he met a traveler who had been to “an antique land.” The traveler told him that he had seen a vast but ruined statue, where only the legs remained standing. The face was sunk in the sand, frowning and sneering. The sculptor interpreted his subject well. There also was a pedestal at the statue, where the traveler read that the statue was of “Ozymandias, King of Kings.” Although the pedestal told “mighty” onlookers that they should look out at the King’s works and thus despair at his greatness, the whole area was just covered with flat sand. All that is left is the wrecked statue.
It is important to keep in mind the point of view of “Ozymandias.” The perspective on the statue is coming from an unknown traveler who is telling the speaker about the scene. This helps create a sense of the mystery of history and legend: we are getting the story from a poet who heard it from a traveler who might or might not have actually seen the statue. The statue itself is an expression of the sculptor, who might or might not have truly captured the passions of the king. Our best access to the king himself is not the statue, not anything physical, but the king’s own words.
Great opposition, irony and sarcasm appear when it is said, "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" Nothing beside remains." This negative connotation shows that there once was a vast kingdom, but now that kingdom has disappeared. Neither property nor the king himself is immortal, the sonnet indicates. The irony of “Ozymandias” cuts much deeper as the reader realizes that the forces of mortality and mutability, described brilliantly in the concluding lines, will erode and destroy all our lives. There is a special justice in the way tyrants are subject to time, but all humans face death and decay. The poem remains primarily an ironic and compelling critique of Ozymandias and other rulers like him, but it is also a striking meditation on time-bound humanity: the traveler in the ancient land, the sculptor-artist who fashioned the tomb, and the reader of the poem, no less than Ozymandias, inhabit a world that is “boundless and bare”.
Ozymandias is first and foremost a metaphor for the ephemeral nature of political power, and in that sense the poem is Shelley’s most outstanding political sonnet, trading the specific rage of a poem like “England in 1819” for the crushing impersonal metaphor of the statue. But Ozymandias symbolizes not only political power—the statue can be a metaphor for the pride and hubris of all of humanity, in any of its manifestations. It is significant that all that remains of Ozymandias is a work of art and a group of words; as Shakespeare does in the sonnets, Shelley demonstrates that art and language long outlast the other legacies of power.
The author’s biography
Percy Bysshe Shelley was born on 4 August 1792 in Horsham, Sussex, England. He was the eldest of the seven children of Elizabeth Pilfold and Timothy Shelley, a country squire who would become baronet in 1815 on the death of his father. Young Percy attended Sion House Academy before entering University College, Oxford, in 1804. These years in a conventional institution were not happy ones for Shelley, where his idealism and controversial philosophies were developing. At this time he wrote such works as the Gothic Zastrozzi (1810) and The Necessity of Atheism (1811); “If the knowledge of a God is the most necessary, why is it not the most evident and the clearest?”
In person Shelley was attractive, winning and almost beautiful, but not to be called handsome. His height was nearly 5 feet 11; he was slim, agile, and strong, with something of a stoop; his complexion brilliant, his hair abundant and wavy, dark brown but early beginning to grizzle; the eyes, deep blue in tint, have been termed "stag-eyes" -- large, fixed and beaming. His voice was wanting in richness and suavity -- high-pitched, and tending to the screechy; his general aspect, though extremely variable according as his mood of mind and his expression shifted, was on the whole uncommonly juvenile. The only portrait of Shelley, from which some idea of his looks used to be formed, is that painted byan amateur, Miss Curran, in 1819; Mrs. Shelley, later, pronounced it to be "in many things very like." This is now in the National Portrait Gallery, together with a quasi-duplicate of it painted by Clint, chiefly from Miss Curran's likeness, and partly from a watercolor (now lost) by Lieutenant Williams. In 1905 (Century Magazine) another portrait was brought forward: a pencil sketch taken in the last month of the poet's life by an American artist, William E. West, followed by an oil painting founded on that sketch. The two works differ very considerably, and neither of them resembles Miss Curran's portrait, yet we incline to believe that the sketch was really taken from Shelley.
If we except Goethe, we must consider Shelley to be the supreme poet of that new era of poetry commencing after the French Revolution. Victor Hugo comes nearest to him in poetic stature, and might for certain reasons be even preferred to him; Lord Byron and William Wordsworth also have their numerous champions -- not to speak of Tennyson or Browning. The grounds, however, on which Shelley may be set highest of all are mainly three. He excels all his competitors in ideality, he excels them in music, and he excels them in importance. By importance we here mean the direct import of the work performed, its controlling power over the reader's thought and feeling, the contagious fire of its white-hot intellectual passion, and the long reverberation of its appeal. Shelley is emphatically the poet of the future. In his own day an alien in the world of mind and invention, and in our day but partially a denizen of it, he appears destined to become, in the long vista of years, an informing presence in the innermost shrine of human thought. Shelley appeared at the time when the sublime frenzies of the French revolutionary movement had exhausted the elasticity of men's thought -- at least in England -- and had left them flaccid and stolid; but that movement prepared another in which revolution was to assume the milder guise of reform, conquering and to conquer.
After Shelley’s expulsion from school for expressing his atheistic views, and now estranged from his father, he eloped with sixteen-year old Harriet Westbrook (1795-1816) to Scotland. They married on 28 August 1811 and would have two children, daughter Ianthe born in 1813 (d.1876) and son Charles born in 1814. Inviting college friend Thomas Hogg into their household, Shelley attempted an open marriage to the consternation of Harriet, which led to the demise of their marriage. For the next three years Shelley made several trips to London to the bookshop and home of atheist journalist William Godwin, the father of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (1797-1851). Influenced by William Wordsworth, he continued to write poetry including Queen Mab: A Philosophical Poem (1813) and participated in various political reform activities. He was also studying the writings of Godwin’s and embracing his radical philosophy.
Percy Shelley’s forays to the Godwin’s also resulted in his acquaintance with his daughter Mary, who almost immediately proved to be his intellectual equal. The poets’ fondness for each other soon grew and in 1814, Shelley eloped a second time with Mary and her stepsister Claire in tow, settling in Switzerland. This action drew the disapproval of both their fathers, and they struggled to support themselves. The Shelley’s were spending much time with Lord George Gordon Byron who also led a controversial life of romantic entanglements and political activity. Shelley was passionate about life and very generous to his friends, which often caused him financial hardship. They passed their days sailing on the lake and telling each other ghost stories. Mary overheard Percy and Byron speaking one night of galvanism, which inspired her most famous novel Frankenstein or; The Modern Prometheus (1818) and which Percy wrote the introduction for.
In 1815 the Shelley’s moved back to England and settled near London. The same year Percy’s grandfather died leaving him a lucrative sum of £1000 per annum. The year 1816 was filled with highs and lows for Shelley. His wife Harriet drowned herself in the Serpentine river in Hyde Park, London and Mary’s half sister Fanny committed suicide, but son William was born (d.1819) and he and Mary wed on 30 December. “Alastor or; The Spirit of Solitude” was published in 1816 and their joint effort based on their travels History of Six Weeks Tour was published in 1817.
In 1818, the Shelley’s moved to Italy and their son Percy Florence was born a year later. Advocates of vegetarianism, the Shelley’s wrote numerous articles about the subject. Percy was working on his tragedy in five acts The Cenci and many other works including “Men of England” and his elegy for John Keats “Adonais” (1821). Mary too was busy writing while they lived in various cities including Pisa and Rome. Shelley continued to venture on sailing trips on his schooner ‘Don Juan’. It sank on 8 July 1822 in a storm and Shelley drowned, at the age of twenty-nine. His body washed ashore and he was cremated on the beach near Viareggio. His ashes are buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, Italy.
Shelley, it will be seen, was not only a prolific but also a versatile poet. Works so various in faculty and in form as The Revolt of Islam, Julian and Maddalo, The Cenci, Prometheus Unbound, Epipysychidion, and the grotesque effusions of which Peter Bell the Third is the prime example, added to the consummate array of lyrics, have seldom to be credited to a single writer -- one, moreover, who died before he was thirty years of age. In prose Shelley could be as admirable as in poetry. His letters to Thomas Love Peacock and others, and his uncompleted Defence of Poetry, are the chief monuments of his mastery in prose; and certainly no more beautiful prose -- having much of the spirit and the aroma of poetry, yet without being distorted out of its proper essence -- is to be found in the English language.
trunkless- The main woody axis of a tree; The main stem of a blood vessel or nerve apart from the branches.
wrinkled- A small furrow, ridge, or crease on a normally smooth surface, caused by crumpling, folding, or shrinking; A line or crease in the skin, as from age.
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