Critical Analysis of Ozymandias

Ozymandias, the poem is written by P. B. Shelley. He is the same poet who married the author Mary Shelley. She wrote the cult classic Frankenstein.

The poem Ozymandias is pretty short in length. Don’t let it confuse you. It is an extremely complex and clever poem.

Short Bio of the Poet

Shelley was born on August 4, in the year 1792. Definitely, one of the most interesting poets that ever lived. It is really impossible to analyze his poem without talking about his life. Shelley is one of ‘The Romantics,’ and belonged to a very wealthy family.

He studied at Eton College and Oxford. Shelley had his whole future intact. He was to inherit his father’s legacy. However, things took a U-turn when he was expelled from his college for writing a paper in favor of atheism. He argued denying the existence of God.

The scandal did not stop for Shelley. He eloped to Scotland with Harriet Westbrook, daughter of a coffee house owner. She was 16 years old at that. Shelley was a wild one, soon he fell in love with Mary. He married Mary Shelley just three weeks after his first wife committed suicide (1816).

Percey was drowned in a sea in 1822 when he was sailing to Italy. He was only 29.

Percy Shelley was not very successful as a writer during his lifetime. Ironically, now he is associated with successful poets like Keats and Byron. Percy must not have imagined it in his wildest dreams. Byron sold as many as 10,000 copies of his poem in just one day.

Shelley wrote for himself alone. He was never interested in public and neither were they interested in him. Now, he is regarded as one of the finest poets ever.

Ozymandias Poem Background

Shelley was a pacifist and believed in non-violent protests. He was highly political and it is evident in his writing. Ozymandias, the poem, written during the reign of King George III. The poem is highly influenced by King George III. He was involved in military conflicts all around the world. Shelley hated that tyrannical monarchical government. Revolution was the only way out. He wanted to overthrow the despotic government.

King George III might be the inspiration for this poem.

What Is Romanticism?

Shelley belonged to the second generation of the Romantic poets. Romantic poetry contains a number of conventions such as:

  1. A dislike of urban/city life.
  2. Huge inclination towards nature and country life.
  3. The sheer love of the supernatural.
  4. Usage of non-flowery ordinary language.

William Wordsworth and Coleridge are the early Romantics. By the time Shelley came into the picture, the early romantics had lost their value. They were also largely sold out. Wordsworth was working as a taxman during Shelley’s time.

The second set of romantics needed to disengage themselves from the earlier ones. So, Shelley, Keats, and Byron inculcated foreign lands and antiquity as their poetry setting. The settings of the romantic poems are mostly foreign lands in the past.

Theme and Setting

The poem is set in a foreign land. It refers to the period of ancient history. The poem is against religion and political control. The language of the poem is very rich. It is full of metaphors and classical illusion.

Rameses II, the Egyptian pharaoh is Ozymandias.  He ruled from 1279 to 1213 BC. Many scholars uphold that he was the ruler of Egypt during the great biblical Exodus of Moses. He led many wars to protect Egypt and also to extend its borders. His active military occupancy makes him very similar to King George III.

Shelley might have deliberately used this character due to his stark resemblance to King George III.

Ozymandias by P. B. 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.”

Structure or Form

Ozymandias is a sonnet. It is metered in iambic pentameter. The octave poses questions and sestet answers the questions offered in the octave. Despite the fact that it is a 14-line sonnet, the poet breaks from the typical sonnet tradition, both in form and rhyme scheme.  This tactic unravels Shelley’s inclination toward challenging traditions and norms, both political and poetic.


In this poem, the poet narrates the crumbling state of Ozymandias’ statute. This way, he portrays the impermanence of political power and praises the power of art in preserving the past. 

Summary of Ozymandias

The speaker talks of meeting a traveler “from an antique land,” who told him about the remnants of a statue in the desert belonging to his native country. He recalls that two huge stone legs without a trunk/ body stand in the desert. Near the legs, there lies the head of the statue which carries a frown. The facial expressions of the statue carry a frown and wrinkled lip, forming sneer and cold command. The sculptor knows the expressions well. This is why he etched the expressions in such a manner it became a part of it even in its lifelessness/ ruins. The memory of those emotions lives “stamped” on the inanimate statue, although both the sculptor and his subject are long dead.

On the pedestal, these lines are inscribed “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”  There is nothing else in the area except the decaying ruin of the statue. Only the “lone and level sands,” stretching into the distance.

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