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Ozymandias (Shelley)
by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Ozymandias The Examiner 1818.jpg
Shelley's "Ozymandias" in The Examiner
First published in11 January 1818
LanguageModern English
MeterLoose iambic pentameter
PublisherThe Examiner
Read onlineOzymandias (Shelley) at Wikisource

"Ozymandias" (/ˌɒziˈmændiəs/)[1] is a sonnet written by the English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822). It was first published in the 11 January 1818 issue of The Examiner[2] of London. The poem was included the following year in Shelley's collection Rosalind and Helen, A Modern Eclogue; with Other Poems,[3] and in a posthumous compilation of his poems published in 1826.[4]

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 same title. The poem explores 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.


The statue fragment of Ramesses II, the Younger Memnon, in the British Museum.

In antiquity, Ozymandias was a Greek name for the pharaoh Ramesses II (r. 1279–1213 BC), derived from a part of his throne name, Usermaatre. In 1817, Shelley began writing the poem Ozymandias, after the British Museum acquired the Younger Memnon, a head-and-torso fragment of a statue of Ramesses II, which dated from the 13th century BC. Earlier, in 1816, the Italian archeologist Giovanni Battista Belzoni had removed the 7.25-short-ton (6.58 t; 6,580 kg) statue fragment from the Ramesseum, the mortuary temple of Ramesses II at Thebes, Egypt. The reputation of the statue fragment preceded its arrival to Western Europe; after his Egyptian expedition in 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte had failed to acquire the Younger Memnon for France.[5] Although the British Museum expected delivery of the antiquity in 1818, the Younger Memnon did not arrive in London until 1821.[6][7] Shelley published his poems before the statue fragment of Ozymandias arrived in Britain.[7]

The book Les Ruines, ou méditations sur les révolutions des empires (1791) by Constantin François de Chassebœuf, comte de Volney (1757–1820), first published in an English translation as The Ruins, or a Survey of the Revolutions of Empires (London: Joseph Johnson, 1792) by James Marshall, was an influence on Shelley.[8] Shelley had explored similar themes in his 1813 work Queen Mab. Typically, Shelley published his literary works either anonymously or pseudonymously, under the name "Glirastes", a Graeco-Latin name created by combining the Latin glīs ("dormouse") with the Greek suffix ἐραστής (erastēs, "lover");[9] the Glirastes name referred to his wife, Mary Shelley, whom he nicknamed "dormouse".[10]

Writing, publication and text[edit]

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 the Shelleys' literary circle would sometimes challenge each other to write competing sonnets on a common subject: Shelley, John Keats and Leigh Hunt wrote competing sonnets about the Nile around the same time. Shelley and Smith both chose a passage from the writings of the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus in Bibliotheca historica, 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 Shelley's poem, Diodorus becomes "a traveller from an antique land."[11][12][13][14]

The poem was printed in The Examiner,[2] a weekly paper published by Leigh's brother John Hunt in London. Hunt admired Shelley's poetry and many of his other works, such as The Revolt of Islam, were published in The Examiner.[15]

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

Shelley's poem was published on 11 January 1818 under the pen name "Glirastes".[16] It appeared on page 24 in the yearly collection, under Original Poetry. 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]

Reading of Percy Shelley's "Ozymandias"


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."

— Percy Shelley's "Ozymandias"[4]

Analysis and interpretation[edit]

Shelley's "Ozymandias" is a sonnet, written in iambic pentameter, but with an atypical rhyme scheme (ABABACDC EDEFEF) which violates the rule that there should be no connection in rhyme between the octave and the sestet.

Two themes of the "Ozymandias" poems are the inevitable decline of rulers and their pretensions to greatness.[17]

In popular culture[edit]

  • A character from The White Mountains, the first novel in the Tripods series, and its TV adaptation, is called Ozymandias, taking his name from frequently reciting the poem.
  • Frequently mentioned in the novel Across a Billion Years by Robert Silverberg referencing long-lost and ancient race known as The High Ones, who traveled the galaxy for one billion years before any other species, but still disappeared.
  • In the AMC drama Breaking Bad, the 14th episode of season 5 is titled "Ozymandias". The episode's title alludes to the collapse of protagonist Walter White's drug empire. A reading of the poem by Bryan Cranston was used in promotional materials prior to the season five premiere.
  • In the graphic novel Watchmen, as well as in its film and television adaptations, "Ozymandias" is the superhero alias of Adrian Veidt. The name can be understood as a reference to Veidt's hubris, as well as to the fact that in the graphic novel, Veidt goes to great lengths to establish world peace, only for the ending to indicate that this peace is fleeting and will collapse in the end.
  • The line: "look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" is quoted by a character in David Foster Wallace's posthumous 2011 novel, The Pale King.[18]
  • On the 2021 album She Walks in Beauty, Marianne Faithfull with Warren Ellis reads the poem with musical accompaniment.
  • In the 2018 film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, an aging impresario and his artist Harrison, a young man with no arms or legs, travel from town to town in a wagon that converts into a small stage where Harrison theatrically recites classics such as Shelley's poem "Ozymandias"; the biblical story of Cain and Abel; works by Shakespeare, in particular Sonnet 29 and The Tempest; and Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
  • In the 2005 video game Civilization IV, when construction technology is researched the quote, "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." from Shelley's poem is displayed and voiced by Leonard Nimoy.
  • A sculpture by Lightnin' McDuff in Amarillo, Texas depicting two, giant, trunkless legs, is based on the poem, sponsored by Stanley Marsh 3.[19]
  • In S5 E9 of the AMC drama Mad Men, Ginsberg utilizes the quote "ye mighty and despair" when speaking braggingly about his recent artwork. He was subsequently recommended to read the rest of the poem.
  • In the Black Ocean SciFi book series by J.S. Morin, the name of the Poet Fleet flagship is "Look upon my work, ye mighty and despair"
  • In the 2017 film Alien: Covenant, the android David recites some lines of the poem as he looks upon the surface of the Engineer planet ravaged by a pathogen he released. His upgraded counterpart Walter later uses David's misattribution of the poem to Lord Byron to discern that David is malfunctioning and going insane.
  • American Horror Story: Cult (2017) features a character 'Oz' (short for Ozymandias) in reference to the poem.[20]

See also[edit]


  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. ^ "Ancient Egypt. Statue of Ramesses II, the 'younger Memnon'. The British Museum. Retrieved 12 April 2021".
  6. ^ British Museum. Colossal bust of Ramesses II, 'The Younger Memnon'. Retrieved 26 November 2015.
  7. ^ a b Chaney, Edward (2006). "Egypt in England and America: The Cultural Memorials of Religion, Royalty and Revolution". In Ascari, Maurizio; Corrado, Adriana (eds.). Sites of Exchange: European Crossroads and Faultlines. Internationale Forschungen zur Allgemeinen und Vergleichenden Literaturwissenschaft. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi. pp. 39–74. ISBN 9042020156.
  8. ^ "Ruins of Empire". knarf.english.upenn.edu.
  9. ^ "Carter, Charles. "Romantic Interests: 'Ozymandias' and a Runaway Dormouse." 6 July 2018. New York Public Library. Retrieved 13 April 2021".
  10. ^ Everest, Kelvin; Matthews, Geoffrey (23 June 2014). The Poems of Shelley: Volume Two: 1817 - 1819. Routledge. ISBN 9781317901075 – via Google Books.
  11. ^ Siculus, Diodorus. Bibliotheca Historica. 1.47.4.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location (link)
  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). Vol. 1–2. Immanel Bekker. Ludwig Dindorf. Friedrich Vogel. In aedibus B. G. Teubneri. At the Perseus Project.
  15. ^ Graham, Walter (1925), "Shelley's Debt to Leigh Hunt and the Examiner", PMLA, 40 (1): 185–192, doi:10.2307/457275, JSTOR 457275
  16. ^ "Romantic Interests: "Ozymandias" and a Runaway Dormouse". The New York Public Library. Retrieved 11 April 2021.
  17. ^ "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.
  18. ^ The Pale King : an unfinished novel. David Foster Wallace. London: Penguin Books. 2012. p. 172. ISBN 978-0-241-96211-4. OCLC 966238074.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  19. ^ "Molina, Eva Lorraine. "Ozymandias: A King, a Poem and a Concrete Statue in a Cow Pasture". Reporting Texas, December 12, 2013. Retrieved 3 June 2021".
  20. ^ "This Character's Name on 'AHS: Cult' Might Hint at the Show's Ending".


  • Rodenbeck, John (2004). "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 (1957). "Shelley's 'Ozymandias'". Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. VI (1957).
  • Waith, Eugene M. (1995). "Ozymandias: Shelley, Horace Smith, and Denon". Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. 44, (1995), pp. 22–28.
  • Richmond, H. M. (1962). "Ozymandias and the Travelers". Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. 11, (Winter, 1962), pp. 65–71.
  • Bequette, M. K. (1977). "Shelley and Smith: Two Sonnets on Ozymandias". Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. 26, (1977), pp. 29–31.
  • Freedman, William (1986). "Postponement and Perspectives in Shelley's 'Ozymandias'". Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Spring, 1986), pp. 63–73.
  • Edgecombe, R. S. (2000). "Displaced Christian Images in Shelley's 'Ozymandias'". Keats Shelley Review, 14 (2000), 95–99.
  • Sng, Zachary (1998). "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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