By Percy Bysshe Shelley
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.”
So what’s with that “frown,” that “wrinkled lip,” that “sneer of cold command”? Or, for that matter, what should we make of the remains of the head of that once colossal statue: that “shattered visage” that lies nearby, “on the sand”?
Shelley and his contemporaries knew perfectly well what Ramesses II really looked like, since an extraordinarily well-preserved head and torso of the now 3000 year old statue was on its way by boat to London’s British Museum, amid much fanfare, when “Ozymandias” was first published in The Examiner in 1818. (1)
That oddly geometric Egyptian goatee, leading the eye upwards toward that serene and calm countenance, so well known to today’s visitors to the British Museum, was equally well known to Shelley’s contemporaries through the many illustrations that heralded the arrival of this statue on London’s shores. (2)
And assuming that some of Shelley’s contemporary readers shared Shelley’s own enthusiasm for Richard Pococke’s extraordinary 2 volume Description of the East (1745), with its 178 large plates, they would also have known that several large sculpted heads of Ramesses II, all apparently in as relatively pristine shape, had been located among the Egyptian sands, all with exactly that same calm and settled countenance. (3)
And what about those words? Although we think of them as inscribed in stone–“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings/Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”–in fact they had long since been erased by time or defaced by subsequent generations who did not take kindly to Ramesses II’s tyrannical rule. So who was the “traveler” who could report such ancient sightings?
Or to phrase these questions more provocatively, why is the poem we have been teaching to so many generations of students so different from the one Shelley wrote?
A bit of background. As a young student of English and American literature, I was nurtured almost exclusively on a diet of “the new criticism.” My twelfth grade prep school teacher used Brooks’ and Warren’s Understanding Poetry (4)
as his primary teaching text, and virtually all my college teachers were steeped in its pedagogy and practice.
I learned somewhat after my college years that many of the principles and practices of this school of thought could be traced to work of I. A. Richards’ Practical Criticism: A Study Of Literary Judgment. (5)
To address what Richards regarded as the appalling lack of attention to “the words on the page” by his Cambridge undergraduates, one needed to focus specifically on “how a poem means.” In fact this very phrase became the title of an equally influential book,
written three decades later, by John Ciardi, (6) one of Richards’ many American protégés.
What appealed to me about the practice as a young student, however, was not so much its origins as its gently subversive nature. No longer would you have to sit passively as this or that that English teacher or college professor held forth about the “meaning” of works of literature in general and poetry in particular.
By dint of paying close attention to the way the poem unfolded, word by word, you could go toe to toe with the best of them. This made our discussions of what we read both livelier and a good deal more egalitarian.
So for me, the practice of close reading became not so much a matter of confining my attention to “the four corners of the text,” as David Coleman, architect of the Common Core Standards in English Language Arts, has suggested, (7)
as a matter of starting with a careful and sustained attention to those words, and seeing where they might take me.
In the case of Shelley’s Ozymandias, they have taken me on a surprising journey.
It starts, of course, with a sense of puzzlement about those lines describing the “shattered visage.”
Why convey a description of this sculpted head that is so completely at odds with what today’s viewers know, and Shelley’s audience knew, about the actual look of this imposing statue, as it would soon be seen in the British Museum? (8)
To begin to answer that question, it’s useful to look at bit deeper into what this strange traveler is telling us, and what he’s wishing us to notice. To begin, a reader might observe that the whole poem after the first line and one fifth is composed entirely of the traveler’s urgent tale: “I met a traveler from an ancient land/Who said . . “. With his insistent message, and compelling command on the reader’s attention, I like to think of him as a 19th century version of Christopher Lloyd, from Back to the Future.
White hair flying, he simply must tell us his story before he will let us go.
But there is another curiosity about this traveler’s tale: just when we’ve been given that compelling description of Ozymandias’s “frown/And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,” and might expect to hear more about the cruel conquests and monumental legacy of this mighty ruler, the traveler abruptly turns our attention to the sculptor–the artist whose acute ability to “read” Ozymandias’s passions was so powerful that those emotions “yet survive,” “stamped” on the fragment of the ruler’s head that the traveler sees before him.
Listen to how the poem’s skillful turn on the verb “tell” accomplishes this subtle shift from “king” to “king maker.”
Near them [the massive legs], 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.
And there’s even a suggestion that this enormously talented sculptor was quite aware of the pretentiousness of the claims to greatness made by his master, since the traveler uses the word “mock” to describe the act of sculpting—“the hand that mocked them”–meaning both ‘imitate’ and ‘show ridicule for.’
But putting aside, for the moment, the puzzle of why the traveler fixes our attention so specifically on the sculptor’s palpable talent in creating this memorable image, it’s instructive to notice how the focus on the sculptor’s talent elides into those justly famous lines:
And on the pedestal these words appear
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
That is, the artful transition from the “[t]he hand that mocked them” to the words that appear on the pedestal open up the possibility that it was the sculptor, rather than his master, who authored these proud and commanding lines.
And having been reminded of the resonant cadences of those memorable words, now would be a good point in our interpretive journey to reveal something about this poem, and the identity of that traveler, that would have been as obvious to Shelley’s classically trained readers as it is hidden from most readers today.
It’s this: those proud Ozymandian lines actually refer to an account provided by Diodorus Siculus, a first century Greek historian, in a multi-volume work entitled Library of History.
The only way a modern traveler could have “seen” those words in the 19th c. is by reading them in Greek, as Shelley did, in the first volume of Diodorus Siculus’s monumental ouvre.
And as we know today, Siculus was himself recalling a description written 300 years earlier by a Greek traveler to Egypt named Hecataeus, who had seen those words on Ramesses II’s pedestal, and presumably had a guide translate them from Egyptian hieroglyphics into Greek. (9)
Rendered rather literally from the Greek of Siculus’s Library of History, they read “King of Kings am I, Osymandyas. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works.”
And in case the initial readers of this poem might have missed Shelley’s classical “quotation’’—one that had become virtually a commonplace during the romantic period (10)–they would have been strongly reminded of it by the publication, two weeks later, of a “competing” poem of the same name by Shelley’s friend Horace Smith.
The opening lines of this “competing” poem read:
In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the desert knows:
“I am great Ozymandias,” saith the stone
“The King of Kings; this mighty city shows
The wonders of my hand.”
My point in noting this classical quotation is not to suggest that readers rush out and purchase the next available Teaching Company lecture series on Beginning Greek, or start dutifully reading early 19th century literary periodicals, but rather to show how skillfully Shelley has transformed these lines into something consequential and resonant.
In fact it is not too much of a reach to say that these two lines—“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:/Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair”– are the reason we read the poem today.
So to recap. We now have three intersecting puzzles.
Why does the poem describe a “visage” that is so remarkably unlike the face and torso we can now see in the British Museum; why does the traveler turn our attention so abruptly away from Ozymandias to focus on the sculptor; and why does the poem conflate over 2000 years of history to make it appear as if the same traveler who saw “the decay/Of that colossal wreck” could also have seen, at the same time, the famously rendered words inscribed on its pedestal?
In answer, let me suggest a perspective that would have been more obvious were it not for the manner in which this poem has been enlisted, in our classrooms, to teach our students about “poetic irony.”
Let’s assume, for a moment, that Shelley was less interested in the somewhat obvious “look what Ozymandias meant then; look how we understand his words today” aspect of the poem’s ironic “message” than he was about describing and exploring the role of that astonishingly gifted sculptor.
So what can we say about that sculptor? That he was exceptionally talented–something of a Michelangelo–at rendering those he sculpted in a lifelike way.
That he was perhaps equally skilled at fashioning words to convey the voice and personality of his subjects. And that just as his carving “mocked” the grandiose pretensions of his master, so he was perhaps equally aware that his words could be interpreted differently from the way his master would have wanted them understood.
The character of the sculptor that is beginning to emerge, that is, is of a supremely gifted artist who very likely held his subjects at some degree of ironic distance.
If Shelley was not principally interested in providing us with a subtle example of poetic irony, however, what other purpose might his poem be understood to serve?
My own journey towards an answer can be found by once again looking closely at the words of the poem, this time focusing on its concluding lines.
Many readers will recall the phrase immediately following the poem’s most famous lines—“Nothing beside remains”—because this phrase offers such a stark and dramatically arresting contrast to the boastful words that precede them.
Fewer readers, however, will recall the poem’s concluding two and a half lines: “Round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
For me, it’s the word “boundless” that merits our greatest attention. On the one hand, it harkens back to the unfettered ambition that characterized Ozymandias’ rule. On the other hand, it beckons forward to the traveler’s description of the unbroken extent of the “lone and level sands” that now stretch around him as far as the eye can see.
But although “boundless” might be considered a somewhat unusual word choice when describing the sands of an Egyptian desert, it’s a word we’ve heard before in a somewhat similar context, referring to a landscape that’s more familiar to western readers:
Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
Shakespeare, Sonnet 65, ll. 1-4
Might Shelley’s poem, that is, be viewed as a response, conscious or unconscious on the part of the poet, to the claim Shakespeare makes in his 65th sonnet, where we learn that despite the “wrackful siege of batt’ring days,” the narrator can still hold out hope that perhaps “this miracle have might/That in black ink my words may still shine bright”?
If Ozymandias is interpreted thus, the puzzles we encountered earlier begin to melt away. The reason for the focus on the sculptor is that it’s the sculptor, rather than the tyrant, who serves as an appropriate surrogate for Shakespeare.
Equally skilled at rendering life-like “images” and finding appropriate words for the kings and tyrants he portrayed, Shakespeare could also be understood as bringing the objects of his art to vivid and immediate life by “stamping” his words on the “lifeless” pages of a book.
And looking back, isn’t “stamped on these lifeless things” an odd way to describe the work of a sculptor, but quite an appropriate way to describe the published work of a late 16th/early 17th century dramatist and poet?
But perhaps more importantly for the 25 year old Shelley, it’s the double meaning of that famous line–“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”—that both evokes Shakespeare’s talent for providing an ironic distance on his own artistic creations, and serves to throw down the gauntlet, without irony, to future generations of poets who might presume to challenge his artistic supremacy—that gives this poem both its dark sense of foreboding and its giddy sense of responding to an almost impossible challenge. (11)
Viewed in this light, not only do the resonant cadences we hear from the pedestal take on a heightened significance, but so too does Shelley’s choice of a sonnet in which to frame his response.
Since Shakespeare’s sonnets, which Shelley adored, were where his claims to immortality were most direct (see sonnets #18, #19, #55, #65, #81 and #121), it would be to this claim, and this form of poetic composition, that Shelley, as Shakespeare’s poetic “son,” would feel obligated to respond.
And respond he did, quite magnificently. Not only is his poem a sonnet, but it is one in which the artistry and intricacy of the rhyme scheme is so masterfully unobtrusive, with each of the four segments of the poem (two quatrains and two triads) containing an end rhyme that’s repeated in the next segment, that readers hardly know they have read a sonnet until they go back and count up the lines.
The son has indeed taken on the father, beating him, in this instance, at his own chosen “game.”
But at some consequence, as viewers who have thought about a similar moment towards the end of Star Wars: The Force Awakens might have surmised.
Just as the “father’s” remarkable talent for “sculpting” a likeness has been all but extinguished by the timeless Egyptian sands, so his equal talent for crafting resonant lines (in driving iambic pentameter, no less) is on the verge of being similarly effaced by those same relentless forces.
And the sad and sobering fact is that by the time Shelley wrote “Ozymandias,” those memorable words had already been entirely obliterated for over two millennia.
By indicating that he understands the irresistible nature of time, as understood in the context of the poem’s three millennia, Shelley “answers” the claim in Sonnet 65 to the possible immortality of the poet’s words by saying, in essence, that neither stone monuments nor monuments of the human imagination will be able, in the end, to resist the “wrackful siege of batt’ring days.”
A high cost indeed for confronting the father, and besting him in his own backyard.
[A earlier version of this essay, without illustrations, was published in the May 2016 issue of California English, devoted to the theme of “Close Reading: What It Is and What It Isn’t” and edited by the inestimable Carol Jago]
- Wikipedia, “Ozymandias,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ozymandias
- Rodenbeck, John. 2004. Travelers from an Antique Land: Shelley’s Inspiration for Ozymandias. Alif: Journal of Compartive Poetics. V 24. 121-150.
- Rodenbeck. Travelers from an Antique Land. 122.
- Brooks, Cleanth and Robert Penn Warren. 1938. Understanding Poetry. The edition I used (pictured in the illustration) was the 3rd edition, 1960, published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
- Richards, I. A. 1929. Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgement. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, and Trubner.
- Ciardi, John. 1959. How Does a Poem Mean? Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Coleman, David and Susan Pimentel. Revised Publishers’ Criteria [4/12/2102] for the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy, Grades 3–12. The language, under Section C’s recommendation that “shorter, challenging texts,” be provided at each grade level to “elicit close reading and re-reading,” reads as follows: “The Common Core State Standards place a high priority on the close, sustained reading of complex text. Such reading focuses on what lies within the four corners of the text” [emphasis mine]. 4-5.
- In his “Who is Ozymandias?” essay in the collection Who is Ozymandias? and Other Puzzles in Poetry (Vintage 2011, pp. 201-2), John Fuller suggests quite plausibly that Shelley had read Vivant Denon’s 1802 Travels in Lower and Upper Egypt, and was recalling Vivant’s description of a “spitefully shattered” colossus at Thebes, whose face had fallen into the sand and who Vivant speculates might have originally represented either Memnon or Ozymandias. This would account for Shelley’s “shattered visage,” but not for his decision to substitute Renaissance sculptural realism for stylized Egyptian practices in his description of Ozymandias’s “wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command.”
- See “The Real Ozymandias: The enthusiasms, rivalries, fads and fashions that lie behind Shelley’s best-known poem” in the December 2013 issue of The Economist (no author is cited in the online edition of this article).
- Rodenbeck. Travelers from an Antique Land.124
- I owe this understanding of poetic influence to my former teacher Harold Bloom of Yale, whose The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1973) was published just as I was entering graduate school.