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‘Ozymandias’ is one of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s best-known and most accessible poems. It was written sometime between December 1817 and January 1818, and was probably the result of a sonnet competition between Shelley and his friend Horace Smith, who stayed with the Shelleys at their home Marlow between 26 and 28 December. In such competitions two or more poets would each write a sonnet on an agreed subject against the clock. ‘Ozymandias’ was first printed in The Examiner on 11 January 1818; Smith’s sonnet, also entitled ‘Ozymandias’ was published in the same newspaper on 1 February. Shelley’s poem was the last of the ‘other poems’ he included in Rosalind and Helen, published in 1819.
In the poem a ‘traveller from an antique land’ describes to the poet the crumbling remains of a colossal statue he had encountered in the desert of an ancient Egyptian tyrant. The head of the statue, now lying on the sands, preserves the tyrant’s ‘sneer of cold command’; on the statue’s pedestal is a vainglorious inscription: ‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; / Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ Shelley wrote this line at the top of his original draft of the poem (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Shelley e. 4, fol. 85v), and Horace Smith's rival sonnet has an almost identical phrase, so perhaps this was the cue for their competition. It is taken from a description by the classical writer Diodorus Siculus (fl. 60–30 BC) of the Theban monuments of Ramses II, who ruled Egypt for 67 years from 1279 to 1213 BC. In 1812 Shelley ordered a copy of Diodorus’s forty-book Bibliotheca historica (Historical Library), and in 1814 an English translation, The Historical Library of Diodorus the Sicilian, by George Booth, was published in London. Here the relevant passage reads:
One of these, made in a sitting posture, is the greatest in all Egypt, the measure of his foot exceeding seven cubitts.… This piece is not only commendable for its greatness, but admirable for its cut and workmanship, and the excellency of the stone. In so great a work there is not to be discerned the least flaw, or any other blemish.
Upon it there is this inscription: – ‘I am Osymandyas, king of kings; if any would know how great I am, and where I lie, let him excel me in any of my works.’ (I, p.53)
This translation of Diodorus’s history of the world includes the inscription for the statue of Osymandyas (also known as Ramses), which was the source for the finale of Shelley’s poem.View images from this item (1)
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Notwithstanding its probable origin in a domestic recreation, ‘Ozymandias’ is written with considerable skill. It attests to Shelley’s great literary gifts and is a realisation of his ambition, as he described it in the preface to Prometheus Unbound, to create new and beautiful ‘poetical abstractions’. The unconventional rhyme scheme joins the break, in the traditional Petrarchan sonnet form, between the first eight lines (the octave) and the final seven lines (the sestet). Internal rhymes and combinations of sounds (‘land’, ‘Stand’, ‘sand’, ‘hand’, ‘Ozymandias’; ‘trunkless’, ‘sunk’; ‘frown’, ‘Round’, ‘boundless’; ‘stone’, ‘lone’ ) convey a powerful but tightly controlled mood. The poem does not end with a moral truism, but with the simple, striking image of the desert sands.
‘Ozymandias’ received no special comment or critical notice when it was first published, but with its ringing phrases and striking imagery it has since found its way into popular culture to the extent that the name ‘Ozymandias’ immediately brings to mind the inevitable fate of the powerful. Most recently, the poem was a presence in the final episodes of the acclaimed American television series Breaking Bad, which charted the rise and fall of a ruthless drug lord. One of the most powerful episodes is called ‘Ozymandias’, and in the trailer to the series the protagonist reads the poem in full over a shot of the desert of New Mexico.
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