Inspired by a statue of Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II, unearthed by British archaeologists in the early 1800s, Percy Bysshe Shelley explores the theme of the transience of human power. What once was a symbol of a great and powerful leader, is now a shattered statue slated to sit in a museum.
Ozymandias is a sonnet written by British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. While it is often used as an example of a Petrarchan sonnet, the rhyme scheme is not typical. Shelley was inspired to write "Ozymandias" shortly after the British Museum’s announcement that they would be acquiring and displaying a large portion of the head and torso of a statue of Egypt’s Pharaoh Ramses II, also known as "Ozymandias".
The start of the poem is from the perspective of the narrator, who recounts once meeting a traveler who had stumbled upon Ramses’ statue in the desert. There is nothing much left of the statue: the legs are without a trunk, or torso; the face of the statue lies half-sunken into the sand, its expression one of a “sneer of cold command.” The traveler tells the narrator that he could tell the sculptor once took great pride in this statue, and it is carefully and beautifully crafted.
On the pedestal of the statue, it reads, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” This declaration is a powerful one, a statue in the desert that surely once stood in front of a mighty empire, built by a powerful pharaoh. However, immediately after this inscription, the narrator states that, “Nothing beside remains.” The irony of what once was, and what exists now, which the narrator describes as “decay”, is not lost on the reader. The narrator ends the sonnet with the description of the sands that stretch far away, barren, into the distance. This once-great ruler established an empire that he thought people would admire for generations; however, as with all great symbols of power built by man, nothing quite lasts forever.