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.”
The theme of Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ is the ravages of time. The sonnet is therefore Shakespearean where the poet challenges the master on his favourite ground.
The poem was written in 1815. Here the poet speaks of meeting a traveller from Egypt who had described to him a wrecked mammoth stone statue standing on a stone pedestal in the desolation of the desert (the desert of Thebes).It was the statue of a king. At the foot of the stone pedestal was a stone face lying half sunk in the desert sand. The statue was trunkless – only a pair of legs poised in a commanding stance. The broken face bore the stamp of arrogance and contempt. The puckered lips, the scornful eyes, the frowning brows; symbolizes severity of character. The most interesting thing was however, an inscription on the stone pedestal declaring the statue to be of the king Ozymandias (perhaps in reality it was that of King Rameses II of Egypt) and declaring him to be the king of kings. It also warns the other brave and mighty to give up any hope of rivalling him. The great irony is that a king so mighty is now reduced to two broken legs and a shattered visage that lies in the dust. The ravages of time spare none and treats everyone equally.
The poet in a few succinct lines brings out the futility of man’s pursuance of worldly glory. Nothing in this life is everlasting. The name ‘Ozymandias’ itself suggests that time –the great destroyer, devours everything. The motif of transience of earthly pomp, power, grandeur and glory is driven home through vibrant images. “The wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command.’ ‘the vast trunkless legs of stone’, ‘the shattered visage’ paints a vivid picture of the ruins in the desolate place. Shelly is poetically philosophising the vanity of human endeavour to achieve immortal glory and the annhiliative and corrosive influence of time. The poem is out and out impersonal and is immune to the poet’s personal emotions.
The form of the poem compliments the theme. The visual images used to fill in the detail of the scene gives concreteness to the poem. The point that the earthly power is thoroughly ephemeral and vaunting tantamounting to meaningless fury – is tangibly manifested not only in its superficial meaning, but also in its tone and temper. Time is a great leveller. The irony and utter fruitlessness of human glory lies in the ruggedness of the following lines:-
“Nothing besides remains
Round the decay of that colossal wreck: boundless, bare.
The lone and level sands stretches far away.”