Shelley’s Sonnet: Ozymandias

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  • May 30 2009: Updated & (hopefully) improved with thanks to Ralph’s comment.
  • January 10 2012 Updated with Shelley’s Bodleian manuscript and further discussion of the mysterious eighth line.
  • Be sure and read the comments! Much is discussed, many helpful and insightful comments have been made. You’ll be missing the better half of the post if you skip them. :-)

Who was Ozymandias?

Younger Memnon Statue of Ramesses

When I first read this poem as a high school student I thought that Ozymandias was Shelley’s own creation. But, as always, truth is sometimes more surprising than fiction.

Shelley wrote Ozymandias  in 1817 in friendly competition with another friend and poet – Horace Smith. Wikipedia offers up a good article on the poem, from which the photo at left is taken.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, here’s what Wikipedia has to say (links and all): “Ozymandias was another name for Ramesses the Great, Pharaoh of the nineteenth dynasty of ancient Egypt. Ozymandias represents a transliteration into Greek of a part of Ramesses’ throne name, User-maat-re Setep-en-re. The sonnet paraphrases the inscription on the base of the statue, given by Diodorus Siculus as “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.”

Some scholars, the article continues, dispute whether Shelley actually saw the statue before writing the sonnet. (It arrived in England after the sonnet’s publication.) Given the fame of the statue, however, Shelley was probably already familiar with it through description and illustration.

The poem was later published by Liegh Hunt, January 1818, in the Examiner, then reprinted again with Rosalind and Helen in 1819.

  • November 2 2011 • Another blogger The Era of Casual Fridays (and a favorite of mine) just recently posted on Ozymandias. Mark’s analysis tend to focus more on the historical context of the poems (whereas I enjoy interpretation and analysis). You will find much information that I didn’t discuss or mention (what sources inspired Shelley for example). Mark’s post is rich with information.

About the Sonnet

The copy of the poem I’ve used in my scansion is based on the version published in Oxford University’s The Complete  Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. I’ve noticed that the punctuation differs from those of other versions on the net. All unmarked feet are iambic. Red denotes a trochaic foot. Yellow denotes a phyrric foot (though,  in each, I’ve marked the second syllable as an intermediate stress).

Shelley's Ozymandias Scansion

  • I hear this sonnet a little different than most – so I put this recording together. This reading comes with a little context at the beginning. See what you think.

The background is from The Free Music Archive and the music is offered under the Creative Commons License.

Most would probably consider this a Nonce Sonnet. Nonce refers to any poetic form in which the rhyme scheme is made up by the poet. Technically, Shelley’s rhyme scheme is a nonce sonnet. shelley1However, apart from the rhymes, things/Kings, the sonnet is close enough to the Petrarchan rhyme scheme to be a minor variation. Ultimately, it only matters if you’re curious about Shelley as a craftsman. My guess is that he set out to write a Petrarchan Sonnet but, in competition with a friend and writing quickly, he decided to make do with the rhyme scheme that most easily flowed from his pen. But that’s only conjecture.

The sonnet is written in Iambic Pentameter; and if you’re not sure what that means or the symbols used to scan the sonnet, check out my post on Iambic Pentameter and the Basics.

Shelley’s metrical variants are well-placed – Stand, Tell, stamped, Look, followed by Nothing and boundless. The trochaic placement of Stand, whether intentional or not, adds emphasis to the implacable fact of the statue’s “trunkless legs”.  The trochaic placement of stamp, as with stand, only adds emphasis to the hard, unforgiving, presence. In the final quatrian, Look, aurally and subliminally, is heard in association with the trochaic Nothing and boundless. The meter reinforces the bleak, hard cruelty of the subject matter. The Sonnet is a masterpiece.

Interpreting the Sonnet

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,

These first 7 lines are deceptively straightforward. The sonnet tells of meeting a traveler who describes the “vast and trunkless legs” of an otherwise collapsed statue. Near the feet and legs is a shattered visage (the statue’s shattered head). The lips tell of a martial figure – cold and sneering.  From there, a third figure enters the sonnet. First is the ‘I‘ of the sonnet, second is the ‘traveler’, and third is the sculptor – the artist who must have read “those passions” well. There is an interesting juxtaposition in Shelley’s use of the word “survive” which means “to live and remain alive” in reference to “lifeless things”. What does Shelley mean? It is a curious ambiguity that is, perhaps, not meant to be resolved – purposefully ambiguous.

  • Another reader, Thaddeus Joseph Stone, just pointed out (Jan. 18, 2012) that the meaning of  these lines makes sense if Shelley  means that “those passions” survive in our own day — they “yet survive” — those same passions that are stamped “on these lifeless things”. That makes perfect sense to me, especially since Shelley had strong political leanings in his own day. Some of his most scathing poems are critical of the aristocracy and staunchly libertarian.  I think it’s a very good way to interpret these lines. In this sense, Shelley knows full well that the tyrannical and cruel passions of Ozymandias live on in others. His sonnet, in this sense, serves as a warning to those who think there’s any future or immortality in such politics.

Those passions survive on “these lifeless things”.

On the one hand the statue is a lifeless thing; but, on the other, the passions of Ozymandias survive through the skill of the sculptor – in contradiction to the sonnet’s usual interpretation. Is this what Ozymandias intended? Even the answer to that is ambiguous. And what or who has truly survived? Was it Ozymandias, or was it the art, the skill of the sculptor? Both? The trochaic stamped only emphasizes the durability of what has survived. Perhaps there’s a clue in the next line:

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

There is tremendous compression (elliptic) in this eighth line. Since it’s the shattered visage that the traveler has been and is describing, the hand must be the artist’s, rather than Ozymandias’. (I’ve noticed, on the Internet at least, that many readers misinterpret the hand and heart as a reference to Ozymandias.)

  • The frown, the wrinkled lip and sneer refer to the shattered visage of Ozymandias.
  • The hand and heart refer to the sculptor.
  • Note: This is only my interpretation. Much more discussion of this interpretation and what else the lines may mean follows in the comment section. If you really want to get into the nitty-gritty of this poem’s meaning, read the comments and decide for yourself.

This is important because it informs the ambiguity of the earlier lines. If the arrogance and cruelty of Ozymandias “survive” on those lifeless things, it is because of the heart and hand of the artist. Art has given them life, not the arrogance or pride of Ozymandias. It is the art that has survived and continues to communicate to the traveler and to the “I” of the sonnet. Or another way of thinking of it is that the artist’s hand mocked the tyrant’s pretenses which his heart (his artistic passions) fed through his stone work. The most insightful interpretation of the sonnet that I could find (online at least) was by Christopher Nield, A Reading of ‘Ozymandias’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley, for the Epoch Times.

What we discern in the face is a coded message. The sculptor, seemingly an instrument of the state, has “mocked” the all-powerful chieftain, meaning both to imitate and ridicule. Lines 6 to 8 are grammatically ambiguous, and different meanings are possible, but one interpretation is that the artist’s “heart,” his sense of compassion and morality, still throbs in the otherwise lifeless head. In other words, love and truth ultimately triumph over cruel, autocratic intelligence. In a way, this story is the reverse of the Bamiyan Buddhas, whose beauty was brought down by tyranny…. Despite the desolation of Shelley’s scene, there is a hope here of emotional and artistic continuity. Basic human nature dictates that, despite differences in time and culture, our gestures can be read and recognized by future generations in our finest cultural artifacts.

What does Shelley mean by the heart that fed? Heart is a synecdochic figure. We can say that someone has heart and we universally interpret that as meaning that the person is compassionate. We use phrases like heartfelt or tender-hearted. If a meal or person is robust, we call them hearty. Amidst so much desolation, it’s hard for me to read Shelley’s line as a reference to Ozymandias’s heart. But anyway, nearly all analyses gloss over this line and I suspect it’s because most don’t what to risk interpreting it. I like Nield’s interpretation and I would take it a step further. Shelley’s line is incredibly compressed (elliptical) if only due to the demands of the form. It’s the only mention of something palpably alive and human in the entirety of the sonnet. It is the heart – the synechdocic figure of the human soul, compassion, and capacity to empathize – that is at the heart of the sonnet and that is alive within the sculptor.

  • Note: The word mock has, in its older sense, the meaning of mimic [Shakespeare Lexicon p. 732]. This meaning survives in modern times in the more neutral “mock up”. A “mock up” doesn’t carry the sense of derision or contempt associated with mock. So… Ozymandias’ passions survive in the artist’s “mock up”. (This isn’t to say that Shelley wasn’t aware of the words double meaning.) More importantly, the word fed or feed also had the meaning: “to entertain or indulge” [Shakespeare Lexicon, p. 409]. So, in this sense, the artist’s heart was “entertaining” and indulging Ozymandias’ cruel passions – entertain in the sense of tolerate. [My thanks to Ralph for encouraging me to more closely examine this line – see our comments below and Ralph’s alternate interpretation of this line.]

In this sense, the heart is what fed the hand – the hand that mocked and gave life to lifelessness through compassion and morality – through art. It is because of the human heart that anything at all survived and continues to survive. And perhaps Shelley means to instruct us that art is the highest and most durable manifestation of the human heart.

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.

The final sestet is fairly straightforward, in comparison to the octave, but the genius is in the irony. Ozymandias’ mighty words, rather than attesting to Ozymandias’ immortal splendor, affirm the very opposite of his intentions. The arrogance of man is impermanent. The accouterments of Ozymandias’ power and wealth have crumbled into a desolate ruin! Look my works and despair!

What survives? Only the hand and heart of the artist.

What’s interesting to me is that you get to see Shelley’s original punctuation without the alteration of a modern editor. What’s most interesting is that there is a comma between them and and.

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

This, perhaps, makes it more likely that “heart that fed” refers to Ozymandias rather than the artist; but is not so conclusive as to omit other interpretations. Again, read it how you will. Below is the poem the way Shelley wrote and punctuated it. The differences from the Oxford edition are in red.

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who He 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, & 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, & the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, this legend clear:
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 & bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

  • If you want to read a brief discussion of the Bodleian Ozymandias Draft, go here.

On the other hand, the copy below, which is presumably a later copy, comes from The Poetical Works of Percy Byssche Shelley: Given from his own edition and other authentic sources. The editor, Harry Buxton Forman, gives us Shelley’s poetry straight from the manuscript (or so he leads us to believe). His copy of Ozymandias is similar to the Oxford edition:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. 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: [8]
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.

Notice the missing comma in line 8. While I can’t find a manuscript image anywhere on the web, what this tells me is that another (and later) manuscript version must omit the comma in the eighth line.  I’m guessing that the omitted comma represents Shelley’s final thoughts and that modern editions (that include the comma) represent editorial interpolations. So, where does that leave us? Shelley must have had second thoughts about the line’s punctuation (as well as other lines). Whether he saw that change as altering the meaning of the line remains conjecture. If I learn more, I’ll add it to the post.

  • The poet Marie Marshall offers readers another way to interpret Shelley’s great poem. Definitely worth reading.

By Way of Comparison

By way of comparison, here is Horace Smith’s Sonnet. Rather than just post it, let’s take a look at it and see how it differs. Such examples are rare, but they can teach poets a tremendous amount about the difference between competent poetry and great poetry.

Ozymandias by Horace Smith

The rhyme scheme is different.

Simply in terms of hewing to a form, Smith does a better job than Shelley. But that’s as far as it goes. The words that Smith emphasizes through trochaic variation seem at odds with each other and even arbitrary.  Emphasizing the word wonder, for example, undercuts the underlying message of devastation and “annihilation”. Not only that, but by this time the word wonder has made its third appearance! Admittedly, wonder had a somewhat different meaning in Smith’s day, but not that different. The emphasis on wonder through amateurish and unimaginative repetition subliminally contradicts Smith’s stated goal – an expression “annihilation” and loss. Possibly without knowing why, the reader is left with a sense of wonder – but also uneasy contradiction.

The trochaic holding is a wasted variant foot. There is no compelling reason to emphasize holding.

Notice also Smith’s personification of the desert in the second line: The only shadow that the desert knows… In effect, Smith is superfluously introducing a second character – the desert. The only reason he has done so is for the sake of the rhyme throws/knows. The effect is to divert the reader’s attention from the central character, Ozymandias’ ruined city. Likewise, when Smith writes, saith the stone, he is unwittingly giving life to desolation: the desert knows, the stone saith

These unwitting mistakes are the hallmark of a lesser talent. Where Shelley carefully focuses the reader’s attention, avoiding superfluous information (which includes personification), Smith doesn’t. His mention of Babylon, already rich with associations, further dilutes the centrality of Ozymandias’ ruins. In comparing Ozymandias’ ruined city to Babylon, Smith is as much as implies that Babylon, not Ozymandias’ city, is the standard for comparison. Shelley doesn’t make this mistake. In Shelley’s sonnet, Ozymandias’ ruins stand alone and incomparable.

The final sestet changes our locale entirely.

Smith imagines a hunter in the ruins of London. Smith spells it out. The ruins of Ozymandias stand as a kind of metaphor for what could happen to London and its “unrecorded race”. Where Shelly leaves it to the reader, Smith spells it out. Where Shelley’s sonnet gives a feeling of immediacy and co-discovery, Smith’s sonnet has  the feeling of a sermon. Smith tells us what to think. Shelley lets us discover it for ourselves.

If you enjoyed this post or found it helpful, please comment!

~ November 17 2014

  • Just having posted this, thought I’d add it here too. No one elsewhere has noticed or mentioned the echoes of Ozymandias. Anyway, I’m a little late to the competition but add my effort to Horace Smith’s.

Here lies the preacher Zebediah Grey:
A pillar, incorruptible, severe;
Who suffered not the children at their play
Nor tidings but humility and fear.
“Tempt not,” said he, “the wrath of righteous love—
The love that strips the unrepentant bare.
Lure not that retribution from above;
Skull the Purple BlockPrint (Block Print)Look on God’s works, ye blithesome, and despair:
How fleeting be your joys, how little worth!”
The congregation trembled at his scowl
And with him daily praised this hell on earth;
But friend if only you could see him now
····Whose sneering adumbrated mankind’s sins—
····If only you could see him— How he grins!

Zebediah
November 16 2014 • by me, Patrick Gillespie