(poetry > poems > ozymandias)

"Ozymandias" is a fascinating and powerful poem written by early 19th century poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. The compelling poem says a great deal with minimal use of words. It tells of a once great leader - a "king of kings" - named Ozymandias. Ozymandias clearly saw himself as mighty but now his kingdom is no more. The poem was written in 1817.

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

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.”

The poem explains how power is finite. We get the clear impression that Ozymandias ruled by fear and was a ruthless leader obsessed with power based on his description of having a "frown and wrinkled lip" and the "sneer of cold command." The sculptor who made the statue clearly saw him as such as a man.

But even the mightiest of kings become nothing over time. The sands are flat (level) and they "stretch far away." Nothing of his mighty kingdom remains.

The British Library says in its Ozymandias entry, "The irony is, of course, that the Mighty will despair – not at the power of Ozymandias, but at the recognition that their power is ultimately transitory." An article from the Poetry Foundation says Ozymandias was more commonly known as Rameses II.

An episode of Breaking Bad was named "Ozymandias." Here is a reading of the poem by actor Bryan Cranston.