37. Ozymandias: Percy Shelley

Ah, the sands of time….

A good social science poem. Combine this with “To the Virgins, Make Much of Time” posted elsewhere in this blog. So, all that remains of the great Ramesses the Great is a broken statue.

Have students first understand what is going on in the poem. Can they picture it? What is it describing? (a statue that has broken at the legs, and is now laying face down in the desert). That discovered, what does it mean? Who is Ozymandias? (answer: he’s a powerful pharaoh.) Who gets a statue made of them, and why? Now, students fill in the blanks.

For a comparison piece, use Horace Smith’s poem of the same topic, originally titled “Ozymandias” as well, but later retitled, “On A Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below.” Shelley and Smith had a wager on who could write the better poem, both of which were published in the same magazine, but only one of which I am recommending here.

Also, for a laugh, check out the start of James Whale’s classic “The Bride of Frankenstein” if you want to see Percy Shelley portrayed as a hilarious fop. It has nothing to do with this poem, but is a hoot.

Percy 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 shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d 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.


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