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05 Ozymandias

“Ozymandias”, written by Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1817, is remarkable for its simplicity and suggestiveness. In the poem, Shelley describes the ruins of the once great tomb of Ramses II, also known as Ozymandias. This tomb was intended to memorialize Ramses’ greatness, but instead paints a sad picture of death and decay in a barren desert.

The poem follows the traditional structure of the fourteen-line Italian sonnet. It features an opening octave, or a set of eight lines, that presents a conflict or dilemma. This is followed by a sestet, or set of six lines, that offers some resolution or commentary upon the intention in the octave.

The poem brings out the short life of the statues and sculptures that the rich and the mighty get carved out to immortalize themselves. The power and money of these arrogant people however fails to perpetuate their name and fame. The all consuming power of time wipes their names from the face of earth and their statues are torn down from the high pedestals that they are mounted on. The pride and arrogance of these so-called ‘mighty’ is mocked at by the shattered fragments of their statues that lie neglected and half buried here and there. The poem brings out the brevity of man and his foolish urge to immortalize his name. Man is too feeble to withstand the ravages of time. Hence wisdom lies in leading a modest and unpretentious life and later on withdrawing from the world with a sense of resignation.

Meanings of words and phrases

  • antique land : ancient country; here, it refers to Egypt
  • vast : huge in size
  • trunkless legs : legs without the torso, so it is a pair of legs without the upper part of the body
  • half sunk : half-buried and half visible
  • shattered : broken; in pieces
  • visage: the face of the statue
  • frown: refers to the face that has an expression of anger and haughtiness on it
  • wrinkled lip : a twitched lip; the phrase is used to bring out the pride and sneer of Ozymandias
  • sneer of cold command: scorn or hostility in Ozymandias’s character as depicted in the face expression; the phrase brings out the expression of ridicule and mockery on his face
  • passions: emotions of Ozymandias as revealed by the expression on his face
  • stamped: carved or sculpted in stone
  • mocked: imitated, copied or reproduced
  • decay : the shattered broken pieces of the statue
  • colossal wreck: the huge statue that now lies wrecked or shattered
  • boundless and bare : stretching as far as one can see, there is nothing but sand
  • lone: nothing survives; everything turns to dust ultimately
  • level: even surface of the sand

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