Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley
performed by Dominic West
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.
Interpretation by Aviva Dautch
In this poem Shelley describes the remnants of a massive statue of a ‘king of kings’ (no false modesty here!) whose heart ‘fed’ on the very fact that he had the power to command such ‘vast’, ‘mighty’ things to be created. Yet the sands around it are ‘boundless and bare’: none of Ozymandias’s works remain, only that of the sculptor who captured the king’s ‘sneer’. What has survived antiquity is not the king’s empire but a statue memorialised in another artwork: Shelley’s sonnet.
Shelley thought poets were ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ and there’s a hint of him crowing that it’s the arts that remain when all else is a distant memory.
Not that art is totally pure for Shelley. He’s taken the traditional sonnet form and deliberately roughed it up a bit, highlighting the creative tension between the intellect and the aesthetic, and giving the poem its lasting impact.
Aviva Dautch is an emerging poet whose work has been published in magazines and anthologies in the UK and USA, including Poetry Review, Modern Poetry in Translation, Agenda: Broadsheet 10, The Long Poem and Poetica. She also works as a freelance museum educator and teaches creative writing and English Language and Literature workshops at the British Library.