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 lips, 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 a beautifully sublime poem, quiet and powerful. With only few words Shelley brings the scene and the idea to vivid life, walking the line between narrative and lyric poem.
Shelley was a member of the same movement that spawned Wordsworth, Coleridge, Lord Byron, Keats, etc. – the Romantic Movement. Wordsworth’s poem a couple weeks ago illustrated one aspect of Romanticism: reverence toward Nature, and the power of Nature over the human spirit. Shelley’s Ozymandias, in a quick sonnet (with a beautiful interlocking rhyme), takes on another major aspect of Romanticism: the use of History to inform the present. The Romantics loved the Classical Era: they found strong kinship in the ancient Romans and Greeks, races of philosopher/warrior/poets. The Romantics (the word itself containing “Roman”) looked back into history, and found people who were strong, spiritual, loving, and in tune with the world. At the same time they often disdained of non-Greeks and non-Romans, finding them brutish. They were very interested in filling in a direct line of philosophical succession from England to Rome to Athens.
Here Shelley writes of Ozymandias – not a Greek or Roman – and his broken statue, alone and forgotten in the desert – Egypt or some place equally exotic. The statue’s location seems even further away with the use of a proxy to tell the story, a “traveller from an antique land.” Shelley finds in Ozymandias’ statue traces of tyrrany; “Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair!” Ozymandias calls to mind a dictator contemporary to Shelley, whose attempt to become the King of Kings through “mighty works” became a “colossal Wreck;” Napoleon. Calling Ozymandias the “King of Kings” may also be a direct insult to Christians, who have used the same title for Jesus. The irony of it is that nothing is left of this King of Kings except his broken statue.
In the end we find that Humanity is trumped by Nature – anything we create can be destroyed, all to quickly washed over by sand and time.