Monday, July 7, 2014

Ozymandias - 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."

Frankly, I'm amazed I haven't posted this sonnet already, as its famous and one of my favorite.  It exemplifies well the concept of the "sublime" in Victorian art, which is the experience of something which humbles man on a fundamental and primal level.  Time completely crumbling even the most mighty of empires definitely falls under this category of the sublime aesthetic.

The poem is given an added layer of mystery by the way Shelley relays the tale of the great Ozymandias' crumbled kingdom.  He does not tell us directly, but rather, he relays a story he was told by a "traveller from an antique land."  The figure is shrouded in mystery, and we are able to be swept away by the narrative as well.

The poem itself is easy to follow and understand.  In the desert there is a decaying statue, of which only the lower legs and pedestal remain.  It's the former work of some great king, mightiest among men, but now it is sunken beneath sand, with no other trace left of the empire.  It's a testament to man's great hubris and the image of the poem utterly humbles us, because on some deep primordial level, we know that we are like a mote of dust in God's eye when faced with the inexorable march of time.  It's not even scary knowledge, but wholly overwhelming and enthralling.  The sense of wonder imparted by the poem far exceeds and dread one might feel at the certain knowledge that someday, our works will be as dust and we will be forgotten.


  1. Nice post. I just have a minor clarification or question, though. I am not well-versed enough to know whether there is a variant for his name, but isn't Shelley's middle name Bysshe, not Bryce?

    1. Correct, an error on my part of unknown origin. Thank you!

    2. My pleasure. Happy to have your blog in my reader, by the way. I enjoy stopping by.