"Ozymandias" sounds a lot like the conclusion of a Shakespearean tragedy; the final lines of the poem are especially reminiscent of something you might hear as the curtain is about to fall at the end of the play, or as the credits are about to roll at the end of a sad movie. The way in which the poem emphasizes destruction and barrenness makes it read like something you'd hear at Ozymandias's funeral. The last lines in particular call attention to the poem's themes in a really catchy way (note all those memorable, alliterative phrases!), making the poem seem very much like those last words you hear as you're about to leave the theater.
"Ozymandias" is an ancient Greek name for Ramses II of Egypt. It is actually a Greek version of the Egyptian phrase "User-maat-Re," one of Ramses's Egyptian names. Why not just call the poem "User-maat-Re," you might ask? Well, this is Shelley, who had studied ancient Greek; it is therefore no surprise that he chooses to use the Greek name "Ozymandias," rather than the Egyptian name.
Ramses II was one of Egypt's greatest pharaohs, and many of the most famous tourist sites in Egypt, including the temple of Abu Simbel and the Ramesseum in Thebes, were built or planned during his incredibly long tenure (he lived until he was 90!). He is known not only for his building program, but also for several ambitious foreign military campaigns and for his diplomacy, especially with the Hittites, another important ancient people.
This poem has several settings. It begins with a strange encounter between the speaker and a traveler from an "antique land" (1). We have no idea where this rendezvous takes place, which is very weird. It could be in the speaker's head, in a dream, on the street, or in the desert; it sort of resembles something that might occur in a youth hostel or a tavern in London. The first appearance of Aragorn in the Fellowship of the Ring might be a good comparison.
Shortly after this initial meeting we are whisked away to the sands of Egypt, or a barren desert that closely resembles it. And this desert isn't just barren; it's really barren. Other than the legs, pedestal, and head of the statue, there's only sand. No trace remains of the civilization or culture that spawned the statue. It's a lot like something you'd see in Planet Earth: emptiness all around, a few sand-storms here, and that's about it. It reminds us of movies where people are stranded in the desert and eventually find a little oasis or the occasional tree, except that here we find a partially destroyed statue instead of a little pond.
There are several different voices in this poem that put some distance between us and Ozymandias. First there is the speaker of the poem, you know the guy who meets the traveler from an "antique land." It's almost as if the speaker has just stopped for the night at a hotel, or stepped into an unfamiliar bar, and happens to bump into a well-traveled guy. The speaker doesn't hang around very long before handing the microphone over to the traveler, whose voice occupies the remainder of the poem. One can imagine a movie based on this storyline: the speaker meets a strange guy who then narrates his experiences, which make up the rest of the film.
We don't know a whole lot about this traveler; he could be a native of the "antique land" (1), a tourist who has visited it, or even a guy who just stepped out of a time machine. He seems like one of those guys you'd meet in a youth hostel who has all kinds of cool stories but no real place to call home other than the road; he is a "traveler" after all, and he clearly knows how to give a really dramatic description – just note the bleak picture that is painted of the "lone and level sands" stretching "far away" (14) to see what we mean.
Most of the poem consists of the traveler's description of the statue lying in the desert, except for the two lines in the middle where he tells us what the inscription on the statue says; and while the traveler speaks these lines, they really belong to Ozymandias, making him, in a sense, the third speaker in this polyphonic (or many-voiced) poem.
"Ozymandias" is a relatively straightforward poem; there aren't many strange words, except for "mock'd." At times the syntax can be a little tricky; for example, the first eight lines are two sentences, the second of which has a lot of clauses that have to be sifted through and assigned their proper function. Other than that second sentence, though, the poem doesn't go much above sea level, making it one of the more readable Shelley poems.
Shelley loved to write really long sentences, and this poem is no exception. The second complete sentence, which begins in line 3, is a good example. The sentence has a lot of separate clauses that resemble complicated Latin sentences from two thousand years ago. The main clause is the statement that a "shatter'd visage" lies in the sand near the legs; the rest of the sentence – you know all that stuff about the "frown" and "sneer of cold command" and how the sculptor was so good that the passions have outlived both Ramses and the artist – is all extraneous information that merely adds to or supplements the first assertion. This long, central sentence gives the poem an epic feel, even within the confines of a decidedly un-epic poetic form, the fourteen-line sonnet. Shelley always had grand ambitions.
"Ozymandias" takes the form of a sonnet in iambic pentameter. A sonnet is a fourteen-line poem, whose ideal form is often attributed to the great Italian poet Petrarch. The Petrarchan sonnet is structured as an octave (8 lines) and a sestet (6 lines). The octave often proposes a problem or concern that the sestet resolves or otherwise engages. The ninth line – the first line of the sestet – marks a shift in the direction of the poem and is frequently called the "turn" or, for you Italian scholars, the volta. While the rhyme scheme of the octave is ABBA ABBA, the rhyme scheme of the sestet is more flexible; two of the most common are CDCDCD and CDECDE.
The other major sonnet form is the Shakespearean or English sonnet; it too has fourteen lines, but is structured as a series of three quatrains (of four lines each) and a concluding couplet (consisting of two consecutive rhyming lines). The Shakespearean sonnet is in iambic pentameter and follows the rhyme scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.
Shelley's sonnet is a strange mixture of these two forms. It is Petrarchan in that the poem is structured as a group of eight lines (octave) and a group of six lines (the sestet). The rhyme scheme is initially Shakespearean, as the first four lines rhyme ABAB. But then the poem gets strange: at lines 5-8 the rhyme scheme is ACDC, rather than the expected CDCD. For lines 9-12, the rhyme scheme is EDEF, rather than EFEF. Finally, instead of a concluding couplet we get another EF group. The entire rhyme scheme can be schematized as follows: ABABACDCEDEFEF.
The poem is written in pentameter, meaning there are five (penta-) groups of two syllables in each line. While you've probably heard of iambic pentameter, Shelley's poem makes it really hard to use that designation. Iambic pentameter means that each line contains five feet or groups, each of which contains an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, as in this line:
half-sunk, a shatt-er'd vis-age lies, whose b>frown (4)
Many of the lines in the poem, however, refuse to conform to this pattern. Take line 12 for example:
No-thing be-side re-mains: round the de-cay
The line begins with a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable; this is called a trochee, and it's the reverse of an iamb. After the initial trochee, we get two iambs, but then we go back to a trochee with "round the," finally ending with an iamb; there's no name for this jumping around! This refusal to conform to any specific meter is evident throughout the poem, and makes it difficult to classify with a simple formula like iambic pentameter.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
Because the poem is inspired by a statue of Ramses II, we shouldn't be surprised to find so many references to this statue and to sculpting more generally. The "colossal" size of the statue is a symbol of Ramses's lofty self-promotion royal ambition. But statues and sculpture aren't all bad in this poem; they are also a vehicle for the poet to explore questions about the longevity of art, and its ability to capture "passions" (6) in a "lifeless" (7) medium like stones (or painting or even poetry).
The statue that inspired the poem was partially destroyed, and the poem frequently reminds us that the statue is in ruins. The dilapidated state of the statue symbolizes not only the erosive processes of time, but also the transience of political leaders and regimes.
There is a lot of death in this poem; the figure represented in the statue is dead, along with the civilization to which he belonged. The statue is destroyed, and so it too is, in some sense, dead. And yet amidst all the death, there are several images of life that give the poem a sense of balance, however slight.
While most of the poem describes a statue, the traveler makes a point of telling us that Ozymandias's "passions" still survive: they are "stamp'd" on the statue, giving all those who view the statue a sense of what Ozymandias's disposition was like, or at least what it was like when the statue was made.
This poem doesn't really have much to do with sex.