By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings!’ This proud exclamation is among the most famous lines in nineteenth-century English poetry. But who wrote them, and what exactly does this quotation mean?
Before we go further, here’s a curious little quiz question.
What work of literature is being described here? Published in January 1818, this literary work was the product of a writing competition between friends. It’s suffused with the Romantic and political ideas of its author, who had the surname Shelley. And the title of the work, which is also the name of the principal figure in the work, is a distinctive name which is now inextricably linked with its author.
This description could refer to Frankenstein, written by Mary Shelley and the product of a ghost-story competition between her, her husband, Lord Byron, and Byron’s doctor. And Frankenstein was indeed published in January 1818.
But so was ‘Ozymandias’, written by Mary Shelley’s husband, Percy Shelley. And it is one particularly memorable line from Shelley’s poem, ‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings!’, which is the focus of the present analysis. Shelley wrote the poem in competition with his friend, Horace Smith. (Smith’s effort was published in the same magazine a month after Shelley’s, but is a much feebler effort.)
Published in The Examiner on 11 January 1818, ‘Ozymandias’ is one of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s most widely studied poems. A sonnet of just fourteen lines, it takes on an epic theme – the rise and fall of civilisations – focusing on the figure of Ozymandias as a symbol for this phenomenon.
Ozymandias was the Greek name for Rameses II, an Egyptian pharaoh who lived between around 1303 BC and 1213 BC. This is several centuries before the epic poet Homer is thought to have lived: in other words, a very long time ago indeed.
This Rameses, by the way, is the most likely candidate for the ‘Pharaoh’ who oppresses the Israelites in the Old Testament story of Moses. Although the Bible does not identify ‘Pharaoh’, Exodus 1:11 tells us that ‘for Pharaoh’ there were ‘treasure cities’ (i.e., store-cities) built named Pithom and Raamses. So we cannot be absolutely certain, but it’s likely that the Pharaoh from whom Moses and the Israelites demanded their freedom was also the inspiration for Shelley’s poem.
In short, Rameses II was a great and powerful ruler, so Shelley’s inscription in his poem, ‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings!’, makes sense. And this seems like a good point to turn to the poem and explore those words more closely.
The sonnet is spoken by a man who meets a traveller one day. This traveller tells the poet about the remains of a great statue that stand in the desert:
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:
But what words appear? This is where we come to the resounding line quoted at the start of this article:
“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.’
This traveller continues by telling the poem’s speaker that on the pedestal of the statue’s remains there is an inscription. The inscription, ‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings!’, is ironic, because Ozymandias/Rameses’ empire has long since crumbled to dust, and the ruins of his statue are all that remain of his once great city. So although the ‘My name is Ozymandias’ sounds thunderingly triumphant, time has robbed Ozymandias of his triumph. He, and his empire, are no more.
The declaration ‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ is similarly supposed to be victorious and to strike fear into the hearts of any who read it. But whilst original readers of the inscription, when the statue was first erected, may have cowered and quaked in terror and awe at the might of Ozymandias, this ‘King of Kings’, millennia later his words have been robbed of their power, and even strike us as ironic and pathetic.