"Ozymandias" (//, oz-ee-MAN-dee-əs) is a sonnet written by English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822), first published in the 11 January 1818 issue of The Examiner in London. It was included the following year in Shelley's collection Rosalind and Helen, A Modern Eclogue; with Other Poems (1819) and in a posthumous compilation of his poems published in 1826. "Ozymandias" is regarded as one of Shelley's more famous works and is frequently anthologised.
In antiquity, Ozymandias (Ὀσυμανδύας) was a Greek name for the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II. Shelley began writing his poem in 1817, soon after the announcement of the British Museum's acquisition of a large fragment of a statue of Ramesses II from the thirteenth century BC, leading some scholars to believe that Shelley was inspired by this. The 7.25-ton fragment of the statue's head and torso had been removed in 1816 from the mortuary temple of Ramesses at Thebes by Italian adventurer Giovanni Battista Belzoni. It was expected to arrive in London in 1818, but did not arrive until 1821. Shelley wrote the poem in friendly competition with his friend and fellow poet Horace Smith (1779–1849), who also wrote a sonnet on the same topic with the same title. Smith's poem was published in The Examiner a few weeks after Shelley's sonnet. Both poems explore the fate of history and the ravages of time: even the greatest men and the empires they forge are impermanent, their legacies fated to decay into oblivion.
The banker and political writer Horace Smith spent the Christmas season of 1817–1818 with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley. At this time, members of Shelley's literary circle would sometimes challenge each other to write competing sonnets on a common subject--Shelley, John Keats and Leigh Hunt wrote competing sonnets on the Nile around the same time. Shelley and Smith both chose a passage from the writings of the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, which described a massive Egyptian statue and quoted its inscription: "King of Kings Ozymandias am I. If any want to know how great I am and where I lie, let him outdo me in my work." In the poem Diodorus becomes "a traveller from an antique land."
The two poems were later published in Leigh Hunt's The Examiner, published by Leigh's brother John Hunt in London. (Hunt was already planning to publish a long excerpt from Shelley's new epic, The Revolt of Islam, later the same month.) Shelley's was published on 11 January 1818 under the pen name Glirastes. It appeared on page 24 in the yearly collection, under Original Poetry. Smith's was published, along by a note signed with the initials H.S., on 1 February 1818. Shelley's poem was later republished under the title "Sonnet. Ozymandias" in his 1819 collection Rosalind and Helen, A Modern Eclogue; with Other Poems by Charles and James Ollier and in the 1826 Miscellaneous and Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley by William Benbow, both in London.
Shelley wrote the poem in competition with his friend Horace Smith, who published his sonnet a month after Shelley's in the same magazine. It takes the same subject, tells the same story, and makes a similar moral point, but one related more directly to modernity, ending by imagining a hunter of the future looking in wonder on the ruins of a forgotten London. It was originally published under the same title as Shelley's verse; but in later collections Smith retitled it "On A Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below".
Percy Shelley's "Ozymandias"
Horace Smith's "Ozymandias"
"Ozymandias" is a sonnet, written in loose iambic pentameter, but with an atypical rhyme scheme (ababa cdcedefef) when compared to other English-language sonnets, and without the characteristic octave-and-sestet structure.
A central theme of "Ozymandias" is the inevitable decline of leaders of empires and their pretensions to greatness. The name "Ozymandias" represents a rendering in Greek of a part of Ramesses' throne name, User-maat-re Setep-en-re. The sonnet paraphrases the inscription on the base of the statue, given by Diodorus Siculus in his Bibliotheca historica as "King of Kings am I, Ozymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works." Shelley's poem may have been inspired by the impending arrival in London in 1821 of a colossal statue of Ramesses II, acquired for the British Museum by the Italian adventurer Giovanni Belzoni in 1816. The poem was written and published before the statue arrived in Britain, but the reports of the statue's imminent arrival may have inspired the poem. The statue's repute in Western Europe preceded its actual arrival in Britain, and Napoleon, who at the time of the two poems was imprisoned on St Helena (although the impact of his own rise and fall was still fresh), had previously made an unsuccessful attempt to acquire it for France.
The iambic pentameter contains five 'feet' in a line. This gives the poem rhythm and pulse, and sometimes is the cause of rhyme.
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