Tuesday, January 31, 2006


    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 still 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 Bysshe Shelley (1792 - 1822)

Maybe Shelley's traveler felt a bit like the guy on the cell phone only instead of a big hole in the ground he looked on the fractured earth as the sun bled into the sky in slow motion acetylene light scattering off the broad sheet of dust that shrouded the ruins of one of Ramesses II's best-known works. It was the great mortuary temple known as the Ramesseum that surrounded a gigantic granite statue of the pharaoh. It was over fifty feet tall and weighed one thousand tons.(Pictured on my homenode for the next few days) The traveler is disappointed to realize that even the greatest of tyrants cannot escape the sands of time no matter how proud or powerful they are. North Africa is possessed of barren wastes of the fallowed dust where voyagers come upon the most stunning wreckages in the sands. Aged and weathered under the sun's fierce glare, sculptures of iconic kings, long gone, are strewn across the arid floor. Both the heat and the sparseness of the desert will take one's breath away. And, in that most desolate of places can be felt the imminence of the shimmering disappearance of an age. It was these ruins that provided the inspiration for Percy Bysshe Shelley's famous poem Ozymandias.

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 - 1822) was an English Romantic Poet and colleague of Horace Smith. Around Christmas of 1817 Shelley and Smith paid a visit to the British museum where they came upon Diodorus Siculus Library of History. In the book the author had recorded the inscription on the pedestal of the Ramesseum statue, "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." As most poets are wont to do they became inspired to have a 'sonnet writing competition' and within a few weeks both sonnets had been published by The Examiner. Shelley's appeared in the January 11, 1818 issue under the alias `Glirastes' and was simply entitled Sonnet. Horace's appeared the following month on February 1st with the cumbersome title On a stupendous leg of granite with only Smith's initials at the end of the verse. A year later Shelley's Ozymandias would be included in his collection Rosalind and Helen, a Modern Eclogue, with Other Poems (1819). Smith's poem is viewed today as having a curiosity value and to compare the two sonnets and allow the inquisitive reader compare and judge for themsleves the outcome of their contest it's included here:


    IN Egypt's sandy silence, all alone,
    Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
    The only shadow that the Desart knows:--
    "I am great OZYMANDIAS," saith the stone,
    "The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
    "The wonders of my hand."--The City's gone,--
    Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
    The site of this forgotten Babylon.

    We wonder,--and some Hunter may express
    Wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness
    Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
    He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
    What powerful but unrecorded race
    Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
    Horace Smith

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Ozymandias in the barren sands of oblivion.

The shattered colossus in the funeral temple is the temple that is presently recognized as the "Tomb of Osymandias" with Ozymandias being "a corruption of Ramses II's prenomen."-- User-maat-re. Ramses II, whose mummy now lies staring up blankly at the ceiling in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo is perhaps the best known of all the pharaohs, the ruler thought to have been Moses' nemesis in the book of Exodus. A forerunner to Donald Trump, Ramses II was also an exceptional builder of enormous monuments. Biographer Robert Blake at savage.net writes:

    No wonder. During his 67 years on the throne, stretching from 1279 B.C. to 1212 B.C., Ramesses could have filled an ancient edition of the Guinness Book of World Records all by himself: he built more temples, obelisks and monuments; took more wives (eight, not counting concubines) and claimed to have sired more children (as many as 162, by some accounts) than any other pharaoh in history. And he presided over an empire that stretched from present-day Libya to Iraq in the east, as far north as Turkey and southward into the Sudan.

    Ramesses is also much celebrated outside of Egypt, though many Westerners probably don't connect the name with the fame. In Exodus he is simply known as "Pharaoh," and Shelley's poem Ozymandias, inspired by the fallen statues at the Ramesseum, his mortuary temple at Thebes, takes its title from the Greek version of one of the ruler's alternate names, User-maat-re. "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" said the inscription on the pharaoh's statue in Shelley's sonnet. Though the poet was making the point that such boasts are hollow because great monuments eventually decay, Ramesses' achievements were truly magnificent.

    In an age when life expectancy could not have been much more than 40, it must have seemed to his subjects that Ramesses would never die. But finally, at 92, the pharaoh went to join his ancestors--and some of his sons--in the great royal necropolis, or city of the dead, in the Valley of the Kings. His internal organs were removed and placed in vessels known as canopic jars, and the body was embalmed and gently wrapped in cloth. Archaeologists found that the embalmers had even stuffed peppercorns into the monarch's nostrils to keep his aquiline nose from being flattened by the wrappings.

Ozymandias tells a brief mocking tale of an old king who believed his empire to be enduring, yet hardly anything lingers hundreds of years later when a traveler passes by the ruins. Shelley attempts to suggest that in the grand scheme of the world, only nature remains immortal. For generations, Shelley's famous verse was an accusation of hubris aimed at the foolishness of super human conceits and the single worth of Shelley's poem lies in the striking illumination of this ordinary concept. The reality is that this literary masterpiece still supplies a measure of humility 185 years after it's initial publication.

The romantic period displayed in Percy Bysshe Shelley's sonnet includes the qualities that were typical for his era--"lyricism, the celebration of the individual, the disillusionment with Western civilization, the fascination with the exotic, and concern with the ways in which time changes things." In the instance of Ozymandias the speaker's personal physical experience is revealed in the first line telling the reader openly that the person who had the experience was not the poet-speaker at all, but "a traveler." Shelley's traveler is disappointed because he cannot see what the statue embodies from the past, a time that the traveler can no longer reach.

The statue serves as a reminder of the great king and the accomplishments he made during his lifetime. Author Roland Barthes notes, "that the destruction of the statue also denotes a second death of the ruler" and literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin states that the "unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence." The poem explains almost nothing of the ancient king, but exposes and celebrates the artist's function of defying time.

Line eight presents some difficulty for many readers in understanding who the poet is referring to. "The hand that mocked them'" most likely belongs to the nameless sculptor who imprisoned, and mockingly betrays the ruler's vainglory. "The heart that fed" belongs to the pharaoh who fed on the passions of empty pride.

Shelley's ironic come-uppance of the pharaoh takes place at Ramses II's funerary temple in ancient Thebes and there's not a pyramid in sight. Today the area is called Luxor and there are no "lone and level sands". Nearby is high rising limestone lining both banks of the Nile and continue into the surrounding hills separated by a narrow strip of fertile land. Just beyond them are the white sands of the Libyan desert passing into the endlessly shifting sands of the Sahara. "Shelley never traveled to Egypt," says journalist John Rodenbeck, "and thus certainly never saw the landscape he describes in his sonnet. Contrary to popular belief, moreover, he likewise never saw the sculptured head allegedly described in the sonnet, which did not arrive in England until a day or two after he and his family had moved permanently to Italy and more than six months after he had published the poem.

Not all those who wander are lost

One writer at Sparkenotes observes a connection between the poem and a scene from chapters seven and eight in Tolkien's The Two Towers:

    The headless, graffiti-covered statue the hobbits discover on the way to Mordor is an example of the poetic moments that are sprinkled throughout The Lord of the Rings. The statue has no importance whatsoever to the plot, and Frodo and Sam learn nothing they need to know from it. They simply see the statue and continue on their journey. Yet the statue nevertheless has an aura of deep meaning, not only for the hobbits, who pay it such rapt attention that Gollum must drag them away, but for us as well. The broken statue of an ancient king of Gondor may be Tolkien's reference to the poem "Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of the most prominent figures in the Romantic movement in English poetry in the early nineteenth century. Tolkien, a professor of Anglo-Saxon literature at Oxford, was certainly familiar with the poem... In this regard, the headless statue is a fitting symbol of the kingdom of Gondor, where wicked usurpers have replaced the once-powerful noble lords.

I thought I heard a pyramid
tumble to the ground
-The Wizard of Ozmandias Pete LeRoy

Shelley's attempt to conjure up an image of sic transit gloria mundi is clever, but all glory is not so fleeting. Ancient Egyptian history is clear that Ramses II has hardly become obscured or forgotten. "The Valley of the Kings, in which (Ramses II's) is located", observes Blake," is just across the Nile River from Luxor, Egypt. It's never exactly been off the beaten track. Tourism has been brisk in the valley for millenniums: graffiti scrawled on tomb walls proves that Greek and Roman travelers stopped here to gaze at the wall paintings and hieroglyphics that were already old long before the birth of Christ." Blake adds," Archaeologists have been coming as well, for centuries at least. Napoleon brought his own team of excavators when he invaded in 1798, and a series of expeditions in the 19th and early 20th centuries uncovered one tomb after another. A total of 61 burial spots had been found by the time the British explorer Howard Carter opened the treasure-laden tomb of King Tutankhamun in 1922."

Today people from all over the world travel to stand alone in the midst of the rubble of great civilizations; the experience must seem mystical. The very absence of many things adding to the sense of greatness lost. Rameses II may not have respected the mastery of time, but that made little difference in the end. The grinding passage of time has not forced the rulers back into the forgotten dust of Ozymandias. And while the dislocation in Ozymandias portends a panorama of "lone and level sands" what they never counted on was the need for parking lots and good cell phone reception.


Benjamin, Walter. (1986) Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books.

Book IV, Chapters 7-8 Summary -- Chapter 7: Journey to the Cross-Roads
Accessed January 29, 2006.

The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley Volume II
Accessed January 29, 2006.

Nisbet, Robert. Ozymandias
Accessed January 29, 2006.

Notes on Shelley. Albert S. Cook. Modern Language Notes, Vol. 20, No. 6. (Jun., 1905), pp. 161-162.
Accessed January 29, 2006.

Patel, Tanvi. Life After Death
Accessed January 29, 2006.

Public domain text by Percy Bysshe Shelley taken from The Poet's Corner
Accessed January 31, 2006.

Public domain text by Horace Smith taken from The Poet's Corner
Accessed January 29, 2006.

Blake, Robert. The Real Ozymandias!
Accessed January 29, 2006

Representative Poetry Online, Ozymandias
Accessed January 29, 2006.

Rodenbeck , John. Travelers from an Antique Land: Shelley's Inspiration for "Ozymandias"
Accessed January 29, 2006.

The Wondering Minstrels, Ozymandias
Accessed January 29, 2006.

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