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Oozymandias by Percy Shelley

Ozymandias by Percy 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.

Oozymandias is Percy Shelley’s most famous poem and one of the most popular in the English language. It is a very simple account of being told about a ruin in the desert in Egypt. It is interesting that this one from all his output should prove to be so enduring because on the face of it, it is quite a light bit of work. The narrator is in an antique land, or in other words one that compared to early nineteenth century England is undeveloped. He is guided to a fallen statue which has seen better days. That the boastful message on the pedestal is at odds with how time has treated it is described but not commented upon.

When I read, and indeed learned by heart, this poem as a boy I had no idea that it was describing a real monument. I had assumed that Ozymandias was a name made up for the poem. But it turns out that it is in fact a common name for the Egyptian pharaoh Ramasesses II. His statue was obtained by the British Museum at around the time the poem was written, though the poem was written before it actually arrived. Even so, it seems likely that the news that it was on its way was what inspired Shelley to write.

Although it does have a simple rhyming structure, I don’t think the rhyme is particularly prominent. You can read it without noticing them. It’s very conversational. You could imagine someone in a pub just saying it and not realising that it is poetry. As such I think it is an early example of literary writing becoming less formal.

I’d be really interested in what you think of it.

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Filed under 19th Century, History in Culture