Ozymandias Summary

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Ozymandias

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Ozymandias Summary

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Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley is a sonnet that was first published in 1818 in the magazine The Examiner. Often regarded as one of Shelley’s most famous works, this poem was written to compete with his friend Horace Smith’s version, which was first published a month later in the same London magazine. The poems cover the same story, though Smith’s is more focused on modernity than Shelley’s version. The story that inspired this sonnet is that of Ozymandias, which was what the Greeks called Ramesses II, an Egyptian pharaoh who ruled for most of the thirteenth century BCE.

The British Museum had just acquired a portion of a statue of Ramesses II, which may have been an inspiration for Shelley’s choice of subject matter. The fragments of the statue were expected to go on exhibit in 1818, but were delayed until 1821.

In Ancient Egypt, Ramesses II was known also as Ramesses the Great. He was known for expanding the Egyptian Empire to include the Levant, Canaan, and Nubia. He became Prince Regent at the age of 14, and lived to be as old as 90 or 91 years old. He was known also as a city and temple builder. Diodorus Siculus, known also as Diodorus of Sicily, was a Greek historian during the first century BCE. He inscribed a statue of Ramesses II, “King of Kings am I, Osymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works.” This inscription is thought to have been an inspiration for Shelley because of the tenth and eleven lines of Shelley’s sonnet, which read: “‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:/Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’”

The first stanza of Ozymandias describes the ruin of a statue. Shelley uses words like “half sunk, a shattered visage lies” in line four to describe the decay of time. The second stanza incorporates the idea of boasting of one’s greatness, such as describing oneself as “king of kings.” While written in iambic pentameter, this sonnet eschews the typical rhyme schemes and structure of a typical sonnet.

Iambic pentameter is a type of meter used in poetry that readers familiar with Shakespeare, especially, will recognize. It involves five pairs of syllables in each line—hence the term pentameter, which means a meter of ten syllables. Each pair consists of an unstressed and stressed syllable, which where the term iambic comes from. These syllables are known also as metric feet, and the pair of metric feet in iambic poetry can also be referred to as an iamb. Examining a poem’s meter, rhyme, and structure is a process known as scansion.

A sonnet is a poem of fourteen lines that usually involves a turn, or volta. In the case of Ozymandias, that turn occurs when moving on to the second stanza when Shelley shifts from discussing ruin and decay to Ramesses II’s self-proclaimed greatness. There are multiple types of sonnets, including the English sonnet (made famous by William Shakespeare), the Spenserian sonnet (invented by the English poet Edmund Spenser), and the Italian sonnet (created by the Italian writer Petrarch). The Italian sonnet is also known as the Petrarchan sonnet. Each type of sonnet typically imposes its own rules for structure, meter, and rhyme, though in Shelley’s case with Ozymandias, he really only adheres to the rules of meter. Sonnets are poetic vehicles for comparing and contrasting, and in that way, Shelley’s Ozymandias is no different from any other sonnet.

Percy Bysshe Shelley was an influential Romantic poet who lived from 1792 to 1822. He was only 29 years old when he died, which might be one of the reasons that he did not become famous during his lifetime. He died at sea in a storm that struck the Gulf of Spezia. Another reason for his lack of fame during his life was likely tied to the fact that many magazines were hesitant to publish his work because the content would have been viewed as either blasphemy, sedition, or both. He was friends and colleagues with Lord Byron, and Thomas Love Peacock. His second wife, Mary Shelley, was the author of Frankenstein. Other famed works written by Percy Bysshe Shelley include Queen Mab, Adonais, and Prometheus Unbound. His works influenced a great many historical figures, including Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and W.B. Yeats, and more. His own actions of non-violent protest influenced Henry David Thoreau, Karl Marx, Mahatma Gandhi, and Leo Tolstoy. He was an advocate of vegetarianism and social justice, in addition to non-violent protest.

In modern pop culture, Percy Bysshe Shelley, his life and his works appear as reference sources in many instances. Ozymandias, specifically, lends its name to an episode of the show Breaking Bad, which aired on the AMC network. Actor Bryan Cranston reads Ozymandias in a trailer for the show.