Greek name for Ramses II, a Pharaoh of Egypt who released the Jews to wander in the desert and fancied colossal monuments of himself.

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 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.'

- Percy Bysshe Shelley

The "vast and trunkless legs" still stand, surrounded by various bits of ancient and hieroglyphic-encrusted rubble, at the Ramesseum on the West Bank of the Nile at Luxor. The Ramesseum is one of the less popular and well-visited archaeological sites in the area -- all the air-conditioned tour buses thunder straight past it en route to dank and sweaty tombs in the Valley of the Kings -- so it's a good place for the Romantically inclined to stop for a picnic. You can take each others' pictures sitting on Ramses II's feet, stand on a broken pillar and recite the poem out loud at his enormous and very beautifully carved pink granite head (still lying there, and only missing a few chunks) and meditate upon the transience of all things and the evanescence of power. It's a real trip.

Yet another essay for AP English, this is the one essay I've written so far that I think just might be capable of receiving a 20--a grade only five people in the history of LHS AP English have received. Once again, please do not use this in whole or in part--particularly the thesis--for I would not want to be involved in Academic Collusion.

“Ozymandias” Essay
At its heart, “Ozymandias” is a poem not about the meaninglessness of power, but about how power came to be meaningless. Viewed as a constant, power is unquestionably meaningful; however, power is not a constant, it is a variable, a variable that is inextricably tied to the transient nature of life. As the central paradox shows, no matter how “Mighty” or inspiring of “despair” your “Works” may be, you will eventually die, and your works will eventually “decay” into a “colossal Wreck”. But why is this so? Why must all of our “Works” be left to decay on the “lone and level sands”, “boundless and bare”? The reason is that God has “mocked” mankind—the creation that his “heart…fed”—by making us mortal, just as Shelley mocks the poem itself—his creation—by introducing imperfections into the sonnet form.

Shelley uses assonance and “s” consonance at the beginning and end of “Ozymandias” to heighten the sense of distance, but contrasts this with hard “k” consonance in the descriptions of the “shattered” statue to increase Ozymandias’ “sneer of cold command” and connect it to the “colossal wreck”, thus furthering the central paradox. The first three lines of the poem are dominated by assonance:

I met a traveler from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart…. Near them, on the sand,
These lines help to give the reader a sense of the immensity of the desert. The second line is particularly effective with “o” assonance between “who” and “two”, “a” assonance between “land” and “vast”, and soft “s” consonance between “vast”, “less”, “legs” and “stone”. However, this assonance is contrasted by the strong “k” consonance of “trunkless”. This strong “k” consonance dominates every image of the statue. The next two lines make this especially apparent:
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
The strong “k” consonance, in conjunction with the cacophony of “shattered” and “sneer”, enhances the power of the image. However, this same consonance that strengthens the images of the statue also connects them to the primary paradox of the poem:
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,...
The “k” consonance of “King of Kings”, and “Works”—just as before—strengthens Ozymandias’ words. These “k” sounds strengthen each image of Ozymandias’ power; however, they also connect each image to “the decay/Of that colossal Wreck” and thus focus attention on the central paradox: that something thinking itself so powerful could be so weak. It is to this central paradox that Shelley directs our attentions and it is through this paradox—in conjunction with the symbols of the eighth line—that all our conclusions will flow.

Shelly hints at the mocking imperfections that God has built into man by blatantly introducing several “imperfections” into the highly structured sonnet form. There are two, standard, highly structured sonnet forms: the Petrarchan, rhyming ABBAABBACDECDE, and the Shakespearean, rhyming ABABCDCDEFEFGG—both use iambic pentameter. Shelley bases “Ozymandias” in this form; however, he introduces several “imperfections” at important points in the poem. For example, the first four lines end with “land”, “stone”, “sand” and “frown” respectively. From this ABAB pattern, one would deduce that Shelly was writing in the Shakespearean form. However, the next four lines end with “command”, “read”, “things” and “fed”, an ACDC pattern where CDCD was expected. Shelly continues to introduce imperfections in the next four rhymes: “appear”, “kings”, “despair” and “decay”, an EDEF pattern where EFEF was expected. Finally, Shelly fails to close with a GG couplet; instead, he continues rhyming EF with “bare” and “away”. Shelly also uses imperfect meter throughout the poem. The first instance occurs with the third line’s trochaic opening “Stand in”; however, the most pronounced instance occurs on the entirely trochaic eighth line, “The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed”. Shelley also uses singular spondees—“Mighty” and “despair”—on the eleventh line: “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”. If some amateur poet had written “Ozymandias” we might expect such errors; however, this is not the case, a poet of Shelley’s caliber unquestionably introduced these “errors” for a reason. If we view Shelley as the “sculptor” of the “shattered visage” that is the imperfect sonnet, it can easily be seen that it is Shelley’s hand that “mocked” the sonnet form, and also Shelley’s “heart that fed” the creation of the sonnet. If we extend this analogy and view God as the “sculptor” of the “shattered visage” that is imperfect humanity, it can be seen that it is God’s hand that mocks the potential perfection of man by introducing the imperfection of mortality, and God’s “heart that fed” man’s creation. Just as Shelley mocks the potential perfection of the sonnet by introducing imperfections, so does God mock the potential perfection of mankind by introducing mortality.

Shelley shows that it is the sculptor’s—God’s—mocking of Ozymandias—mankind—with mortality that is responsible for the meaninglessness of power. The central paradox of “Ozymandias” is relatively simple:

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,...
Shelley is writing about the inherent meaningless of power due to its transient nature. The simple view would be to see this condemnation of power as applying only to Ozymandias; however, a larger and more general view is to perceive Ozymandias as a symbol for all mankind. The most important ramification of such a view is the presence of a sculptor:
...its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
The sculptor—the creator—“mocks”, in the sense of creation, the passions of mankind and is also the “heart that fed” those passions. This would suggest that the sculptor is a symbol for God—the being that created mankind. However, the word “mock” has the dual meaning of both creation and jest. Here again, the central paradox is all important. Everything Ozymandias does in life, all of his “Works” are, in the end, meaningless because his life must end, and his “Works” must “decay”. Thus, it can be seen that God mocks mankind by making us mortal, by making everything that we do meaningless. This is how power came to be meaningless: Godmocked”, created, mankind; however, he also mocked, jested, the perfection of mankind by introducing mortality, leaving all our power and its resulting “Works” to be destroyed by the inexorable entropy of the sands of time.

By viewing Ozymandias in the abstract, as a symbol for mankind, and thus viewing the sculptor as a symbol for God, it can be seen that Godmockedmankind my making us mortal, thus making power meaningless. Similarly, Shelley mocks the highly structured form of the sonnet by purposely inserting many imperfections in the rhyme and meter of “Ozymandias”. Shelley also uses hard “k” consonance in almost every description of the statue to both strengthen the description and to link it to the central paradox. One important point to note is that Shelley qualifies the view expounded in “Ozymandias” as not his own, but “the traveler's” by enclosing most of the poem in quotes, making it a poem within a poem. Thus, all we know is that this is one possible view of power, it is not necessarily the view that Shelley subscribes to.

    At Yaki Point, the main interest seemed to be cell phone reception. A man at the overlook announced proudly to his companion, "I have reception here!" and proceeded to dial and have a conversation shouted as loud as he could possibly manage, the general outline of which went something like this: "I'M CALLING FROM THE GRAND CANYON’." "THE GRAND CANYON." "I SAID I'M CALLING FROM THE GRAND CANYON. YOU KNOW, THE BIG HOLE IN THE GROUND." "THE GRAND CANYON, I SAID. I'M CALLING YOU FROM THERE. YES."
    - Akkana Peck, Trip Notes: Monday: Descending Through Time.

Maybe Shelley’s traveler felt a bit like the guy on the cell phone only instead of a big hole in the ground he looked upon a fractured earth as the sun bled into the sky in slow motion as the acetylene light scattered off the broad sheet of dust that shrouded the ruins of one of Ramesses II's best-known works. It was the great mortuary temple known as the Ramesseum that surrounded a gigantic granite statue of the pharaoh. It was over fifty feet tall and weighed one thousand tons. The traveler is disappointed to realize that even the greatest of tyrants cannot escape the sands of time no matter how proud or powerful they are. North Africa is possessed of barren wastes of the fallowed dust where voyagers come upon the most stunning wreckage in the sands. Aged and weathered under the sun’s fierce glare, sculptures of iconic kings, long gone, are strewn across the arid floor. Both the heat and the sparseness of the desert will take one's breath away. And, in that most desolate of places can be felt the imminence of the shimmering disappearance of an age. It was these ruins that provided the inspiration for Percy Bysshe Shelley's famous poem Ozymandias.

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 - 1822) was an English Romantic Poet and colleague of Horace Smith. Around Christmas of 1817 Shelley and Smith paid a visit to the British museum where they came upon Diodorus Siculus Library of History. In the book the author had recorded the inscription on the pedestal of the Ramesseum statue, "King of Kings am I, Osymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works." As most poets are wont to do they became inspired to have a 'sonnet writing competition' and within a few weeks both sonnets had been published by The Examiner. Shelley’s appeared in the January 11, 1818 issue under the alias ‘Glirastes’ and was simply entitled Sonnet. Horace’s appeared the following month on February 1st with the cumbersome title On a stupendous leg of granite with only Smith's initials at the end of the verse. A year later Shelley’s Ozymandias would be included in his collection Rosalind and Helen, a Modern Eclogue, with Other Poems (1819). Smith's poem is viewed today as having a curiosity value and to compare the two sonnets and allow the inquisitive reader compare and judge for themsleves the outcome of their contest it’s included here:


    IN Egypt's sandy silence, all alone,
      Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
      The only shadow that the Desart knows:--
    "I am great OZYMANDIAS," saith the stone,
      "The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
    "The wonders of my hand."--The City's gone,--
      Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
    The site of this forgotten Babylon.

    We wonder,--and some Hunter may express
    Wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness
      Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
    He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
      What powerful but unrecorded race
      Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

    Horace Smith

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Ozymandias in the barren sands of oblivion.

The shattered colossus in the funeral temple is the temple that is presently recognized as the "Tomb of Osymandias" with Ozymandias being “a corruption of Ramses II's prenomen.”-- User-maat-re. Ramses II, whose mummy now lies staring up blankly at the ceiling in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo is perhaps the best known of all the pharaohs, the ruler thought to have been Moses' nemesis in the book of Exodus. A forerunner to Donald Trump, Ramses II was also an exceptional builder of enormous monuments. Biographer Robert Blake at writes:

    No wonder. During his 67 years on the throne, stretching from 1279 B.C. to 1212 B.C., Ramesses could have filled an ancient edition of the Guinness Book of World Records all by himself: he built more temples, obelisks and monuments; took more wives (eight, not counting concubines) and claimed to have sired more children (as many as 162, by some accounts) than any other pharaoh in history. And he presided over an empire that stretched from present-day Libya to Iraq in the east, as far north as Turkey and southward into the Sudan.

    Ramesses is also much celebrated outside of Egypt, though many Westerners probably don't connect the name with the fame. In Exodus he is simply known as "Pharaoh," and Shelley's poem Ozymandias, inspired by the fallen statues at the Ramesseum, his mortuary temple at Thebes, takes its title from the Greek version of one of the ruler's alternate names, User-maat-re. "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" said the inscription on the pharaoh's statue in Shelley's sonnet. Though the poet was making the point that such boasts are hollow because great monuments eventually decay, Ramesses' achievements were truly magnificent.

    In an age when life expectancy could not have been much more than 40, it must have seemed to his subjects that Ramesses would never die. But finally, at 92, the pharaoh went to join his ancestors--and some of his sons--in the great royal necropolis, or city of the dead, in the Valley of the Kings. His internal organs were removed and placed in vessels known as canopic jars, and the body was embalmed and gently wrapped in cloth. Archaeologists found that the embalmers had even stuffed peppercorns into the monarch's nostrils to keep his aquiline nose from being flattened by the wrappings.

Ozymandias tells a brief mocking tale of an old king who believed his empire to be enduring, yet hardly anything lingers hundreds of years later when a traveler passes by the ruins. Shelley attempts to suggest that in the grand scheme of the world, only nature remains immortal. For generations, Shelley's famous verse was an accusation of hubris aimed at the foolishness of super human conceits and the single worth of Shelley's poem lies in the striking illumination of this ordinary concept. The reality is that this literary masterpiece still supplies a measure of humility 185 years after it’s initial publication.

The romantic period displayed in Percy Bysshe Shelley's sonnet includes the qualities that were typical for his era—“lyricism, the celebration of the individual, the disillusionment with Western civilization, the fascination with the exotic, and concern with the ways in which time changes things.” In the instance of Ozymandias the speaker's personal physical experience is revealed in the first line telling the reader openly that the person who had the experience was not the poet-speaker at all, but "a traveler." Shelley's traveler is disappointed because he cannot see what the statue embodies from the past, a time that the traveler can no longer reach.

The statue serves as a reminder of the great king and the accomplishments he made during his lifetime. Author Roland Barthes notes, “that the destruction of the statue also denotes a second death of the ruler” and literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin states that the "unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence." The poem explains almost nothing of the ancient king, but exposes and celebrates the artist’s function of defying time.

Line eight presents some difficulty for many readers in understanding who the poet is referring to. “The hand that mocked them'” most likely belongs to the nameless sculptor who imprisoned, and mockingly betrays the ruler's vainglory. “The heart that fed” belongs to the pharaoh who fed on the passions of empty pride.

Shelley's ironic come-uppance of the pharaoh takes place at Ramses II's funerary temple in ancient Thebes and there's not a pyramid in sight. Today the area is called Luxor and there are no “lone and level sands”. Nearby is high rising limestone lining both banks of the Nile and continue into the surrounding hills separated by a narrow strip of fertile land. Just beyond them are the white sands of the Libyan desert passing into the endlessly shifting sands of the Sahara. “Shelley never traveled to Egypt,” says journalist John Rodenbeck, “and thus certainly never saw the landscape he describes in his sonnet. Contrary to popular belief, moreover, he likewise never saw the sculptured head allegedly described in the sonnet, which did not arrive in England until a day or two after he and his family had moved permanently to Italy and more than six months after he had published the poem.

Not all those who wander are lost

One writer at Sparkenotes observes a connection between the poem and a scene from chapters seven and eight in Tolkien’s The Two Towers:

    The headless, graffiti-covered statue the hobbits discover on the way to Mordor is an example of the poetic moments that are sprinkled throughout The Lord of the Rings. The statue has no importance whatsoever to the plot, and Frodo and Sam learn nothing they need to know from it. They simply see the statue and continue on their journey. Yet the statue nevertheless has an aura of deep meaning, not only for the hobbits, who pay it such rapt attention that Gollum must drag them away, but for us as well. The broken statue of an ancient king of Gondor may be Tolkien’s reference to the poem “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of the most prominent figures in the Romantic movement in English poetry in the early nineteenth century. Tolkien, a professor of Anglo-Saxon literature at Oxford, was certainly familiar with the poem… In this regard, the headless statue is a fitting symbol of the kingdom of Gondor, where wicked usurpers have replaced the once-powerful noble lords.

I thought I heard a pyramid
tumble to the ground
-The Wizard of Ozmandias Pete LeRoy

Shelley’s attempt to conjure up an image of sic transit gloria mundi is clever, but all glory is not so fleeting. Ancient Egyptian history is clear that Ramses II has hardly become obscured or forgotten. “The Valley of the Kings, in which (Ramses II's) is located”, observes Blake,” is just across the Nile River from Luxor, Egypt. It's never exactly been off the beaten track. Tourism has been brisk in the valley for millenniums: graffiti scrawled on tomb walls proves that Greek and Roman travelers stopped here to gaze at the wall paintings and hieroglyphics that were already old long before the birth of Christ.” Blake adds,” Archaeologists have been coming as well, for centuries at least. Napoleon brought his own team of excavators when he invaded in 1798, and a series of expeditions in the 19th and early 20th centuries uncovered one tomb after another. A total of 61 burial spots had been found by the time the British explorer Howard Carter opened the treasure-laden tomb of King Tutankhamun in 1922.”

Today people from all over the world travel to stand alone in the midst of the rubble of great civilizations; the experience must seem mystical. The very absence of many things adding to the sense of greatness lost. Rameses II may not have respected the mastery of time, but that made little difference in the end. The grinding passage of time has not forced the rulers back into the forgotten dust of Ozymandias. And while the dislocation in Ozymandias portends a panorama of "lone and level sands” what they never counted on was the need for parking lots and good cell phone reception.


Benjamin, Walter. (1986) Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books.

Book IV, Chapters 7–8 Summary — Chapter 7: Journey to the Cross-Roads:
The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley Volume II:
Accessed January 29, 2006.

Nisbet, Robert. Ozymandias:

Notes on Shelley. Albert S. Cook. Modern Language Notes, Vol. 20, No. 6. (Jun., 1905), pp. 161-162.
Stable URL:
Accessed January 29, 2006.

Patel, Tanvi. Life After Death:
Accessed January 29, 2006.

Public domain text by Horace Smith taken from The Poet’s Corner:
Accessed January 29, 2006.

Blake, Robert. The Real Ozymandias!: Accessed January 29, 2006

Representative Poetry Online, Ozymandias:
Accessed January 29, 2006.

Rodenbeck , John. Travelers from an Antique Land: Shelley's Inspiration for "Ozymandias":
Accessed January 29, 2006.

The Wondering Minstrels, Ozymandias:
Accessed January 29, 2006.

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