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A fair copy draft (c. 1817) of Shelley's "Ozymandias" in the collection of Oxford's Bodleian Library

“Ozymandias” (in five syllables: /ˌɒziˈmændiəs/, oz-ee-MAN-dee-əs; or four: /ˌɒziˈmændjəs/, oz-ee-MAND-yəs)[1] is a sonnet written by English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822), first published in the 11 January 1818 issue of The Examiner[2] in London. It was included the following year in Shelley's collection Rosalind and Helen, A Modern Eclogue; with Other Poems (1819)[3] and in a posthumous compilation of his poems published in 1826.[4] "Ozymandias" is regarded as one of Shelley's most famous works and is frequently anthologised.

In antiquity, Ozymandias (Ὀσυμανδύας in the Greek alphabet) was a Greek name for the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II, who ruled from 1279 BCE to 1213 BCE, in the 19th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt. Shelley began writing his poem in 1817, soon after the announcement of the British Museum’s acquisition of a large fragment of a statue of Ramesses II from the thirteenth century BC, leading some scholars to believe that Shelley was inspired by this. The 7.25-ton fragment of the statue's head and torso had been removed in 1816 from the mortuary temple of Ramesses at Thebes by Italian adventurer Giovanni Battista Belzoni. It was expected to arrive in London in 1818, but did not arrive until 1821.[5][6] Shelley wrote the poem in friendly competition with his friend and fellow poet Horace Smith (1779–1849), who also wrote a sonnet on the same topic with the very same title. Smith's poem was published in The Examiner a few weeks after Shelley's sonnet. Both poems explore the fate of history and the ravages of time: even the greatest men and the empires they forge are impermanent, their legacies fated to decay into oblivion.

Writing and publication history[edit]

The Younger Memnon statue of Ramesses II in the British Museum. Its imminent arrival in London may have inspired the poem.

Publication history[edit]

The banker and political writer Horace Smith spent the Christmas season of 1817–1818 with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley. At this time, members of Shelley’s literary circle would sometimes challenge each other to write competing sonnets on a common subject--Shelley, John Keats and Leigh Hunt wrote competing sonnets on the Nile around the same time. Shelley and Smith both chose a passage from the writings of the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, which described a massive Egyptian statue and quoted its inscription: "King of Kings Ozymandias am I. If any want to know how great I am and where I lie, let him outdo me in my work." In the poem Diodorus becomes "a traveller from an antique land."[7]

The two poems were later published in Leigh Hunt's The Examiner,[2] published by Leigh's brother John Hunt in London. (Hunt was already planning to publish a long excerpt from Shelley's new epic, The Revolt of Islam, later the same month.) Shelley’s was published on 11 January 1818 under the pen name Glirastes. It appeared on page 24 in the yearly collection, under Original Poetry. Smith's was published, along by a note signed with the initials H.S., on 1 February 1818. Shelley's poem was later republished under the title "Sonnet. Ozymandias" in his 1819 collection Rosalind and Helen, A Modern Eclogue; with Other Poems by Charles and James Ollier[3] and in the 1826 Miscellaneous and Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley by William Benbow, both in London.[4]

Smith's poem[edit]

Shelley wrote the poem in competition with his friend Horace Smith, who published his sonnet a month after Shelley's in the same magazine.[8] It takes the same subject, tells the same story, and makes a similar moral point, but one related more directly to modernity, ending by imagining a hunter of the future looking in wonder on the ruins of an annihilated London. It was originally published under the same title as Shelley's verse; but in later collections Smith retitled it "On A Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below".[9]

Comparison of the two poems[edit]

Analysis and interpretation[edit]

1817 draft by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Bodleian Library


"Ozymandias" is a sonnet, written in loose iambic pentameter, but with an atypical rhyme scheme when compared to other English-language sonnets, and without the characteristic octave-and-sestet structure.


The central theme of "Ozymandias" is contrasting the inevitable decline of all leaders and of the empires they build with their pretensions to greatness.[11]

"Ozymandias" represents a transliteration into Greek of a part of Ramesses's throne name, User-maat-re Setep-en-re. The sonnet paraphrases the inscription on the base of the statue, given by Diodorus Siculus in his Bibliotheca historica, as "King of Kings am I, Osymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works."[12][13][14] Shelley's poem may have been inspired by the impending arrival in London in 1821 of a colossal statue of Ramesses II, acquired for the British Museum by the Italian adventurer Giovanni Belzoni in 1816. The poem was written and published before the statue arrived in Britain,[6] but the reports of the statue's imminent arrival may have inspired the poem.[15] The statue's repute in Western Europe preceded its actual arrival in Britain, and Napoleon (at the time of the two poems merely a curiosity in distant St. Helena, however still fresh the impact of his own rise and fall) had previously made an unsuccessful attempt to acquire it for France.

Cultural influence[edit]

The poem has influenced the production of numerous creative works across a range of artistic disciplines. Crime novelist Robert B. Parker opens his 1981 Spenser novel Early Autumn with a full quotation of the poem. In John Christopher's The Tripods trilogy (1967), a vagrant character named Ozymandias leads the characters to rebel against the tripods, which begins the story arc. The writer Alan Moore named a superhero Ozymandias in his 1986–87 comic book miniseries Watchmen and recited the poem in the course of the story.[16] The Uncanny X-Men comic series also features a character named Ozymandias.

The third-to-last episode of the American television series Breaking Bad, titled "Ozymandias", was directly influenced by the poem's content, and draws on the poem's theme of collapse following greatness; in a teaser trailer for the show's final eight episodes, the entire poem is recited by lead actor Bryan Cranston.[17][18]

Woody Allen's films Stardust Memories (1980) and To Rome with Love (2012) use the term "Ozymandias Melancholia", which Allen defines as "the realisation that your works of art will not save you and will mean nothing down the line".[19]

In a scene from Ridley Scott's 2017 film Alien: Covenant, the film's android character David quotes the final four lines of "Ozymandias" but, significantly for the plot, misattributes the poem to Byron.


  1. ^ Wells, John C. (1990). "s.v. Ozymandias". Longman pronunciation dictionary. Harrow: Longman. p. 508. ISBN 0-582-05383-8.  The four-syllable pronunciation is used by Shelley to fit the poem's meter.
  2. ^ a b Glirastes (1818), "Original Poetry. Ozymandias", The Examiner, A Sunday Paper, on politics, domestic economy and theatricals for the year 1818, London: John Hunt, p. 24 
  3. ^ a b Reprinted in Shelley, Percy Bysshe (1876). Rosalind and Helen - Edited, with notes by H. Buxton Forman, and printed for private distribution. London: Hollinger. p. 72. 
  4. ^ a b c Percy Bysshe Shelley, "Ozymandias" in Miscellaneous and Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley (London: W. Benbow, 1826), 100.
  5. ^ British Museum. Colossal bust of Ramesses II, 'The Younger Memnon'. Retrieved 26 November 2015.
  6. ^ a b Chaney, Edward (2006). "Egypt in England and America: The Cultural Memorials of Religion, Royalty and Revolution". In Ascari, Maurizio; Corrado, Adriana. Sites of Exchange: European Crossroads and Faultlines. Internationale Forschungen zur Allgemeinen und Vergleichenden Literaturwissenschaft. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi. pp. 39–74. ISBN 9042020156. 
  7. ^ Siculus, Diodorus. Bibliotheca Historica. 1.47.4. 
  8. ^ The Examiner. Shelley's poem appeared on 11 January and Smith's on 1 February.Treasury of English Sonnets. Ed. from the Original Sources with Notes and Illustrations, David M. Main
  9. ^ Habing, B. "Ozymandias – Smith". PotW.org. Retrieved 23 September 2006. The iambic pentameter contains five 'feet' in a line. This gives the poem rhythm and pulse, and sometimes is the cause of rhyme. 
  10. ^ Horace Smith. Ozymandias (Smith) at potw.org. 1 August 2013
  11. ^ Author. "MacEachen, Dougald B. ''CliffsNotes on Shelley's Poems''. 18 July 2011". Cliffsnotes.com. Archived from the original on 5 March 2013. Retrieved 1 August 2013. 
  12. ^ See footnote 10 at the following source, for reference to the Loeb Classical Library translation of this inscription, by C.H. Oldfather: http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poems/ozymandias, accessed 12 April 2014.
  13. ^ See section/verse 1.47.4 at the following presentation of the 1933 version of the Loeb Classics translation, which also matches the translation appearing here: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Diodorus_Siculus/1C*.html, accessed 12 April 2014.
  14. ^ For the original Greek, see: Diodorus Siculus. "1.47.4". Bibliotheca Historica (in Greek). 1–2. Immanel Bekker. Ludwig Dindorf. Friedrich Vogel. In aedibus B. G. Teubneri.  At the Perseus Project.
  15. ^ "Colossal bust of Ramesses II, the 'Younger Memnon'". British Museum. Retrieved 10 January 2008.
  16. ^ William Irwin, Mark D. White (2009). Watchmen and Philosophy: A Rorschach Test. John Wiley & Sons. p. 70. ISBN 9780470730300. 
  17. ^ Breaking Bad Review: "Ozymandias".
  18. ^ Moaba, Alex (July 30, 2013). "'Breaking Bad' 'Ozymandias' Teaser Sounds Ominous". The Huffington Post. Retrieved September 16, 2013. 
  19. ^ Allen, Woody; Björkman, Stig (1995). "Interiors". Woody Allen on Woody Allen. Grove Press. p. 103. ISBN 0802134254. Retrieved 3 September 2013. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Rodenbeck, John. "Travelers from an Antique Land: Shelley's Inspiration for ‘Ozymandias,’" Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, no. 24 ("Archeology of Literature: Tracing the Old in the New"), 2004, pp. 121–148.
  • Johnstone Parr. "Shelley's 'Ozymandias,'" Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. VI (1957).
  • Waith, Eugene M. "Ozymandias: Shelley, Horace Smith, and Denon." Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. 44, (1995), pp. 22–28.
  • Richmond, H. M. "Ozymandias and the Travelers." Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. 11, (Winter, 1962), pp. 65–71.
  • Bequette, M. K. "Shelley and Smith: Two Sonnets on Ozymandias." Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. 26, (1977), pp. 29–31.
  • Freedman, William. "Postponement and Perspectives in Shelley's 'Ozymandias'." Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Spring, 1986), pp. 63–73.
  • Edgecombe, R. S. "Displaced Christian Images in Shelley's 'Ozymandias'." Keats Shelley Review, 14 (2000), 95–99.
  • Sng, Zachary. "The Construction of Lyric Subjectivity in Shelley's 'Ozymandias'." Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 37, No. 2 (Summer, 1998), pp. 217–233.

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