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.”
Ozymandias is a poem written by the English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, first published in 1818. It depicts a meeting with a traveller who describes a ruined statue of the pharaoh Rameses II (whose ‘Greek name’ was Ozymandias) and the poem explores ideas around the ravage of time, the impermanence of power, and the inevitable and ironic fall of those with power through this subject.
The poem’s writing and publication roughly lines up with the acquisition of the Younger Memnon, an actual fragment of a statue of Rameses II – following a failed acquisition by Napoleon Bonaparte, the statue fragment was removed from Rameses II’s mortuary temple in Thebes, Egypt by an Italian Archaeologist in 1816, before arriving at the British Museum in 1821.
Ozymandias is a sonnet with an atypical rhyme scheme of ABABACDC EDEFEF. The poem has multiple concentric framings or speakers – the narrator, the traveller they describe having met, the architect the traveller ascribes intention to, and the titular ruler whose words are written on the pedestal. These complex and layered structural devices help communicate the themes of the poem – the awesomeness of history, aging and changes caused by time; the importance of conversation, storytelling and documentation of the past; and a palpably sardonic expression of the futility of power and those who seek it.
The poem is very well-known and well-regarded amongst Shelley’s work and even amongst English poetry more widely. It is regularly taught in schools because of the strong thematic and contextual elements and its relative simplicity. It has transcended literature, becoming a ubiquitous and oft-referenced commentary on power and its failure. One of the climactic episodes in the final season of Breaking Bad, where Walter White’s drug empire crumbles and his family collapses, is named Ozymandias, and trailers for the episode featured Bryan Cranston reading the poem. One of the superheroes in Alan Moore’s Watchmen, who executes a plan to unite both sides of the Cold War against a manufactured extra-terrestrial threat, thus preventing nuclear Armageddon, is named Ozymandias. My usernames when I was first using Twitter and Reddit as a teen were related to the poem, because I liked Breaking Bad and Watchmen, because the poem’s commentary on rulers and empires resonated with me at the time and because I thought it sounded badass.
This blog post is intended as a sort of two-parter. I’ll link the other part here when it’s done. I used both of the texts these blog posts are about to make to make the below experiment in my kitchen.