April is National Poetry Month, so today I write about Ozymandias, a sonnet by Shelley, first published in 1818. Shelley wrote this poem after a statue of Ramesses II was found in Egypt.
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 visages 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 thse 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.”
—Percy Bysshe Shelley
Of course, since this poem is a classic, there is much to interpret. Shelley notes that not he, but someone else tells this story of a huge statue of a long dead ruler is in the desert. The statue is not complete, especially the face, as he describes a “shattered visage.” Whomever the sculptor was that created the statue had the last word in that he made the face sneering “of cold command.” So this ruler was not well loved and is actually mocked by the sculptor making him so lifelike. This once mighty ruler’s statue now lies abandoned in the desert with nothing left around. Ironic. The poem reminds us that no matter our station in life, we all die. Also, being boastful and prideful might get you a mocking tribute.
What do you think is the message of this poem? Shelley and a contemporary, Horace Smith, both wrote poems about the statue of Ramesses II. Shelley’s became the classic. Smith’s poem is entitled On a Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below.
Below is the statue of Ramesses II that was probably the inspiration for the poem. This statue was discovered in the Egyptian desert in 1816. It arrived at the British Museum in 1821.
–Colossal bust of Ramesses II, the ‘Younger Memnon’,
British Museum, from Thebes, 1250 B.C., 7.25 tons