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A fair copy draft (c. 1817) of Shelley's "Ozymandias" in the collection of Oxford's Bodleian Library

"Ozymandias" (in five syllables /ˌɒziˈmændiəs/ or four syllables /ˌɒziˈmændjəs/[1]) is a sonnet written by the English romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822). First published in the 11 January 1818 issue of The Examiner[2] in London, it was included the following year in Shelley's collection Rosalind and Helen, A Modern Eclogue; with Other Poems (1819)[3] and after his death in a posthumous compilation of his poems published in 1826.[4] "Ozymandias" is regarded as one of Shelley's most famous works and is frequently anthologised.

In antiquity, Ozymandias was an alternative name for the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II. Shelley began writing his poem in 1817, soon after the announcement of the British Museum's acquisition of a large fragment of a statue Ramesses II from the thirteenth-century BCE, and some scholars consider that Shelley was inspired by this. The 7.25-ton fragment of the statue's head and torso had been recovered in 1816 from the mortuary temple of Ramesses at Thebes by the Italian adventurer Giovanni Battista Belzoni (1778–1823). It was expected to arrive in London in 1818, but did not arrive until 1821.[5] [6] Shelley wrote the poem in friendly competition with his friend and fellow poet Horace Smith (1779–1849) who also wrote a sonnet on the topic. Smith's poem would be first published in The Examiner a few weeks after Shelley's sonnet. Both poems explore the fate of history and the ravages of time—that all prominent men and the empires they build are impermanent and their legacies fated to decay and oblivion. Shelley and Smith both contrast this fate to the lasting power of art.

Writing and publication history[edit]

The Younger Memnon statue of Ramesses II in the British Museum. Its imminent arrival in London may have inspired the poem

Publication history[edit]

Both Percy Bysshe Shelley and Horace Smith submitted sonnets on the subject to The Examiner,[2] published by John Hunt in London and edited by his brother Leigh Hunt. Shelley's was published on 11 January 1818 under the pen name Glirastes. It appeared on page 24 in the yearly collection, under Original Poetry. Smith's was published, with the initials H.S., on 1 February 1818. Shelley's poem was later republished under the title "Sonnet. Ozymandias" in his 1819 collection Rosalind and Helen, A Modern Eclogue; with Other Poems by Charles and James Ollier[3] and in the 1826 Miscellaneous and Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley by William Benbow, both in London.[4]

Smith's poem[edit]

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote this poem in competition with his friend Horace Smith, who published his sonnet a month after Shelley's in the same magazine.[7] It takes the same subject, tells the same story, and makes a similar moral point, but one related more directly to modernity, ending by imagining a hunter of the future looking in wonder on the ruins of an annihilated London. It was originally published under the same title as Shelley's verse; but in later collections Smith retitled it "On A Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below".[8]

Comparison of the two poems[edit]

Shelley's Ozymandias

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.[4]

Smith's Ozymandias

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."— 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.[9]

Analysis and interpretation[edit]

1817 draft by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Bodleian Library


"Ozymandias" is a sonnet, written in iambic pentameter, but with an atypical rhyme scheme when compared to other English-language sonnets.


The central theme of "Ozymandias" is contrasting the inevitable decline of all leaders and of the empires they build with the lasting power of art, the only thing that has any permanence.[10]

"Ozymandias" represents a transliteration into Greek of a part of Ramesses' throne name, User-maat-re Setep-en-re. The sonnet paraphrases the inscription on the base of the statue, given by Diodorus Siculus in his Bibliotheca historica, as "King of Kings am I, Osymandias. If anyone should like to know my grandeur and reach of stature, let him surpass any of my achievements."[11][12]

Shelley's poem may have been inspired by the arrival in London in 1821 of a colossal statue of Ramesses II, acquired for the British Museum by the Italian adventurer Giovanni Belzoni in 1816. The poem was written and published before the statue arrived in Britain,[6] but the reports of the statue's imminent arrival may have inspired the poem.[13] The statue's repute in Western Europe preceded its actual arrival in Britain, and Napoleon had previously made an unsuccessful attempt to acquire it for France.

The verb, "to mock," used in the poem to describe the actions of the sculptor, had two senses. The older sense, "to fashion an imitation of reality" (as in "a mock-up"),[14] existed for several centuries before the poem was written. By Shelley's day the second sense, "to ridicule" (especially by mimicking) had come to the fore.[citation needed]

Cultural influence[edit]

The poem has influenced the production of numerous creative works across a range of artistic disciplines. For example, the writer Alan Moore named a superhero Ozymandias, in his 1986-87 comic book miniseries Watchmen and recited the poem in the course of the story.[15] The third-to-last episode of the American television series Breaking Bad, titled "Ozymandias", was directly influenced by the poem's content; the entire poem is also recited by lead actor Bryan Cranston in a trailer for the show's final eight episodes.[16][17] Woody Allen's films Stardust Memories (1980) and To Rome with Love (2012) use the term "Ozymandias Melancholia", which Allen defines as "the realisation that your works of art will not save you and will mean nothing down the line".[18] Musical works which reference the poem include a setting in Russian for baritone by the Ukrainian composer Borys Lyatoshynsky.[19]


  1. ^ Wells, John C. "Ozymandias" (entry), Longman pronunciation dictionary (Harrow: Longman, 1990), 508, ISBN 0-582-05383-8; the four-syllable pronunciation is used by Shelley to fit the poem's meter.
  2. ^ a b Glirastes (1818), "Original Poetry. Ozymandias", The Examiner, A Sunday Paper, on politics, domestic economy and theatricals for the year 1818 (London: John Hunt): 24 
  3. ^ a b Reprinted in Shelley, Percy Bysshe (1876). Rosalind and Helen - Edited, with notes by H. Buxton Forman, and printed for private distribution.. London: Hollinger. p. 72. 
  4. ^ a b c Percy Bysshe Shelley, "Ozymandias" in Miscellaneous and Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley (London: W. Benbow, 1826), 100.
  5. ^ British Museum. Colossal bust of Ramesses II, the 'Younger Memnon'. Retrieved 2 November 2013.
  6. ^ a b Chaney, Edward (2006). "Egypt in England and America: The Cultural Memorials of Religion, Royalty and Revolution". In Ascari, Maurizio; Corrado, Adriana. Sites of Exchange: European Crossroads and Faultlines. Internationale Forschungen zur Allgemeinen und Vergleichenden Literaturwissenschaft. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi. pp. 39–74. ISBN 9042020156. 
  7. ^ The Examiner. Shelley's poem appeared on 11 January and Smith's on 1 February.Treasury of English Sonnets. Ed. from the Original Sources with Notes and Illustrations, David M. Main
  8. ^ Habing, B. "Ozymandias – Smith". PotW.org. Retrieved 23 September 2006. "The iambic pentameter contains five 'feet' in a line. This gives the poem rhythm and pulse, and sometimes is the cause of rhyme." 
  9. ^ Horace Smith. Ozymandias (Smith) at potw.org. 1 August 2013
  10. ^ Author. "MacEachen, Dougald B. ''CliffsNotes on Shelley's Poems''. 18 July 2011". Cliffsnotes.com. Retrieved 1 August 2013. 
  11. ^ (Greek Text) Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica, 1.47.4 at the Perseus Project
  12. ^ RPO Editors. "Percy Bysshe Shelley : Ozymandias". University of Toronto Department of English. University of Toronto Libraries, University of Toronto Press. Retrieved 18 September 2006. 
  13. ^ "Colossal bust of Ramesses II, the 'Younger Memnon'". British Museum. Retrieved 10 January 2008.
  14. ^ OED: mock, v. "4...†b. To simulate, make a false pretence of. Obs. [citations for 1593 and 1606; both from Shakespeare]"
  15. ^ William Irwin, Mark D. White (2009). Watchmen and Philosophy: A Rorschach Test. John Wiley & Sons. p. 70. ISBN 9780470730300. 
  16. ^ Breaking Bad Review: "Ozymandias".
  17. ^ Moaba, Alex (July 30, 2013). "'Breaking Bad' 'Ozymandias' Teaser Sounds Ominous". The Huffington Post. Retrieved September 16, 2013. 
  18. ^ "Diane Keaton Kristin Griffith and Mary Beth Hurt in Interiors". Woody Allen on Woody Allen. Grove Press. 1995. p. 103. ISBN 0802134254. Retrieved 3 September 2013. 
  19. ^ Allmusic.com. Borys Lyatoshynsky, Ozymandias and Other Romances For Low Voice and Piano.

Further reading[edit]

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