The first-person poetic persona states that he met a traveler who had been to “an antique land.” The traveler told him that he had seen a vast but ruined statue, where only the legs remained standing. The face was sunk in the sand, frowning and sneering. The sculptor interpreted his subject well. There also was a pedestal at the statue, where the traveler read that the statue was of “Ozymandias, King of Kings.” Although the pedestal told “mighty” onlookers that they should look out at the King’s works and thus despair at his greatness, the whole area was just covered with flat sand. All that is left is the wrecked statue.
"Ozymandias" is a fourteen-line, iambic pentameter sonnet. It is not a traditional one, however. Although it is neither a Petrarchan sonnet nor a Shakespearean sonnet, the rhyming scheme and style resemble a Petrarchan sonnet more, particularly with its 8-6 structure rather than 4-4-4-2.
Here we have a speaker learning from a traveler about a giant, ruined statue that lay broken and eroded in the desert. The title of the poem informs the reader that the subject is the 13th-century B.C. Egyptian King Ramses II, whom the Greeks called “Ozymandias.” The traveler describes the great work of the sculptor, who was able to capture the king’s “passions” and give meaningful expression to the stone, an otherwise “lifeless thing.” The “mocking hand” in line 8 is that of the sculptor, who had the artistic ability to “mock” (that is, both imitate and deride) the passions of the king. The “heart” is first of all the king’s, which “fed” the sculptor’s passions, and in turn the sculptor’s, sympathetically recapturing the king’s passions in the stone.
The final five lines mock the inscription hammered into the pedestal of the statue. The original inscription read “I am Ozymandias, King of Kings; if anyone wishes to know what I am and where I lie, let him surpass me in some of my exploits.” The idea was that he was too powerful for even the common king to relate to him; even a mighty king should despair at matching his power. That principle may well remain valid, but it is undercut by the plain fact that even an empire is a human creation that will one day pass away. The statue and surrounding desert constitute a metaphor for invented power in the face of natural power. By Shelley’s time, nothing remains but a shattered bust, eroded “visage,” and “trunkless legs” surrounded with “nothing” but “level sands” that “stretch far away.” Shelley thus points out human mortality and the fate of artificial things.
The lesson is important in Europe: France’s hegemony has ended, and England’s will end sooner or later. Everything about the king’s “exploits” is now gone, and all that remains of the dominating civilization are shattered “stones” alone in the desert. Note the use of alliteration to emphasize the point: “boundless and bare”; “lone and level.”
It is important to keep in mind the point of view of “Ozymandias.” The perspective on the statue is coming from an unknown traveler who is telling the speaker about the scene. This helps create a sense of the mystery of history and legend: we are getting the story from a poet who heard it from a traveler who might or might not have actually seen the statue. The statue itself is an expression of the sculptor, who might or might not have truly captured the passions of the king. Our best access to the king himself is not the statue, not anything physical, but the king’s own words.
Poetry might last in a way that other human creations cannot. Yet, communicating words presents a different set of problems. For one thing, there are problems of translation, for the king did not write in English. More seriously, there are problems of transcription, for apparently Shelley’s poem does not even accurately reproduce the words of the inscription.
Finally, we cannot miss the general comment on human vanity in the poem. It is not just the “mighty” who desire to withstand time; it is common for people to seek immortality and to resist death and decay. Furthermore, the sculptor himself gets attention and praise that used to be deserved by the king, for all that Ozymandias achieved has now “decayed” into almost nothing, while the sculpture has lasted long enough to make it into poetry. In a way, the artist has become more powerful than the king. The only things that “survive” are the artist’s records of the king’s passion, carved into the stone.
Perhaps Shelley chose the medium of poetry in order to create something more powerful and lasting than what politics could achieve, all the while understanding that words too will eventually pass away. Unlike many of his poems, “Ozymandias” does not end on a note of hope. There is no extra stanza or concluding couplet to honor the fleeting joys of knowledge or to hope in human progress. Instead, the traveler has nothing more to say, and the persona draws no conclusions of his own.