Percy Bysshe Shelley
Analysed and Read by Tom East
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."
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FORM: This poem is a sonnet. It is nearer in form to the Italianate or Petrarchian than the Shakespearian sonnet, but does not quite fit the standard since it uses five rhymes instead of the usual four. The rhyme scheme used is ababacdcedefef. I have seen this described as a 'Sicilian sonnet', but since I have not come across that name anywhere else, this may be taking things too far and I personally am content to think of it as a variant of the Italianate form. Shelley is perfectly happy to use devices like near rhyme (e.g. appear/despair) or printer's rhyme (e.g. sand/command) liberally in this poem and it seems likely that he was much more concerned with meaning and the general 'shape' of the poem than strict form.
MEANING: The meaning of this poem is crystal clear. It illustates, in a very telling fashion, that the glories and vanities of even the most powerful of men are only temporary things. The ending of the poem is the key to this. The only line that presents any difficulty is line eight, which is anyway not central to the poem. 'The hand that mocked them' is probably a reference to the sculptor's hand. It was this unknown sculptor who captured, and so 'mocked' for all time the expression that betrayed the ruler's vainglory. 'The heart that fed' is no doubt the king's heart, which fed on the passions of empty pride.
LANGUAGE: Although this poem was written nearly 200 years ago, we would describe most of its idiom as modern. The only thing we would regard as an archaism, is the use of 'ye' in line 11. This does not seem out of place, given the context, and variations of this line are still used in demotic speech today.
WRITING: We know a great deal about the writing of this poem. In December, 1817, Shelley and his guest Horace Smith visited the British Museum. They were inspired to have a 'sonnet writing competition' by seeing a book by Diodorus Siculus. Both sonnets were published by The Examiner a few weeks afterward. Ozymandias (not under that title) appeared under the nom-de-plume 'Glirastes' in the issue of 11 January, 1818, and On a stupendous leg of granite appeared in under Smith's initials in the issue of 1 February,1818. Ozymandias originally had the title of Sonnet and was included in his collection Rosalind and Helen, a Modern Eclogue, with Other Poems. 'Lip' in line 5 was originally 'lips'and line 12 originally read 'No thing remains beside ...'. Smith's poem is regarded now as being of no more than curiosity value.
OZYMANDIAS: 'Ozymandias' was a real king, or Pharaoh to be more precise. He was Rameses II of Egypt, the Pharaoh referred to in Exodus. He was one of the more ambitious Pharaohs, built temples and obelisks, and had over 150 children. The ruins of his statue are at his tomb, the Ramesseum, in Thebes. There is an an inscription on the base of the statue. This has been translated as 'I am Ozymandias, King of Kings. / If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, / let him surpass my works.' 'Ozymandias' is a version of one of his alternative names, User-maat-re.
PUNCTUATION: As it contains a 'quotation' of the transcription within some direct speech, punctuation is important in this poem. It would probably have been better if Shelley had followed the modern fashion for using 'normal' case at the start of lines, rather than using the convention (still applied by many) of capitalising the opening word of each line.