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.”
“Ozymandias” is a sonnet, in this case a variant of a Petrarchan sonnet. The Petrarchan sonnet is divided into an 8-lined octave that creates a situation and a 6 line sestet that comments on the situation. Here’s the rhyme scheme for “Ozymandias.” Some of the rhymes are near rhymes or off rhymes (that is, they’re not exact). Or perhaps rhyming “frown” and “stone” sounded closer in Shelley’s day than it does to us today. While it’s not exactly the rhyme scheme of a Petrarchan sonnet, it’s closer to it than it is to a Shakespearean sonnet and uses the 8/6 line structure of a Petrarchan sonnet.
I met a traveller from an antique land———————-A
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone———–B
Stand in the desert…. Near them on the sand,————-A
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown————B
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command————-A
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read————-C
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,—–D
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.——C
And on the pedestal these words appear:——————E
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:——————-D
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’—————E
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay—————–F
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,—————E
The lone and level sands stretch far away.—————–F
Notice how Shelley uses that form here. By using the sonnet form he’s drawing attention to the formal, artificial, or constructed nature of his work–just as a monument is a formal, artificial, constructed thing. But unlike the monument, the work of literature is not subject to time and decay. In addition, what remains most prominent of Ozymandias’s statute is the inscription on the pedestal–in other words, the words remain more clearly than his fearsome monument. You might also notice how those last 6 lines, the lines where we get the inscription are kind of like a pedestal for the first 8 lines of the poem. Look at how the first 8 lines are stacked on top of the last 6, like a statue on a pedestal.
Finally, think about what Shelley is saying about the relative impermanence of the physical world and the things we think are important in it. Do literature and art allow us to transcend the everyday, physical world?
The idea that poetry is more enduring than other art forms and than material things like monuments is an old one–one that many poets before Shelley wrote about . Horace in his Odes writes that he’s created a monument more enduring than bronze, and Shakespeare at the beginning of Sonnet 55 says:
Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rime.
For anyone who’s interested, here’s Horace’s stanza in Latin w/ a link to his Odes (in Latin), and below that is a translation:
Exegi monumentum aere perennius
regalique situ pyramidum altius,
quod non imber edax, non Aquilo inpotens
possit diruere aut innumerabilis
annorum series et fuga temporum.
More durable than bronze, higher than Pharaoh’s
Pyramids is the monument I have made,
A shape that angry wind or hungry rain
Cannot demolish, nor the innumerable
Ranks of the years that march in centuries.
The poem was originally published in the newspaper The Examiner January 11th, 1818.
Shelley, Percey. “Ozymandias.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Greenblatt et al. New York: Norton, 2006, (744).