A Close Reading of Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Rais Tuluka
3 min readJun 9
The picture is from a statue that the British stole from the Egyptians so that school kids can look at it on field trips.

Let’s take a closer look at “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley. This poem, published in 1818, offers a poignant reflection on the fleeting nature of power and the inevitable decay of human accomplishments. It invites us to contemplate the transience of worldly glory and the ultimate insignificance of even the mightiest rulers.

The poem begins with a traveler recounting a chance encounter with a “vast and trunkless legs of stone” standing in the desert. The use of the word “trunkless” suggests that the statue has lost its torso, emphasizing the fragmented and deteriorated state of what was once a grand monument. The detached legs in the vast expanse of the desert immediately set a desolate and isolated tone.

As the traveler describes the scene, he mentions the inscription on the pedestal, which reads: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; / Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” These lines reveal the immense arrogance and pride of Ozymandias, who proclaims himself as the ruler of all rulers. However, the irony lies in the juxtaposition of the inscription with the broken and decaying statue. Instead of inspiring fear or awe, the ruins of Ozymandias’ empire stand as a testament to the futility of his self-aggrandizement.

The next few lines describe the surrounding landscape, with “nothing beside remains” except for “boundless and bare” sand. Shelley’s choice of words emphasizes the contrast between the grandiosity of Ozymandias’ vision and the harsh reality of its eventual demise. The once-mighty ruler’s power and dominion have been reduced to a desolate wasteland, highlighting the impermanence of human achievements.

The final lines of the poem offer a powerful message: “And on the pedestal, these words appear: / ‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; / Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’” Here, Shelley employs irony to drive home the central theme. Ozymandias, once so confident and commanding, now serves as a cautionary tale for those who seek eternal fame and glory. The phrase “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” implies a challenge to other powerful rulers, suggesting that they should feel insignificant in the face of Ozymandias’ supposed greatness. However, the irony lies in the fact that there is nothing left to look upon but ruins…