The speaker recalls having met a traveler “from an antique land,” who told him a story about the ruins of a statue in the desert of his native country. Two vast legs of stone stand without a body, and near them a massive, crumbling stone head lies “half sunk” in the sand. The traveler told the speaker that the frown and “sneer of cold command” on the statue’s face indicate that the sculptor understood well the emotions (or "passions") of the statue’s subject. The memory of those emotions survives "stamped" on the lifeless statue, even though both the sculptor and his subject are both now dead. On the pedestal of the statue appear the words, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” But around the decaying ruin of the statue, nothing remains, only the “lone and level sands,” which stretch out around it.
What’s Up With the Title?
"Ozymandias" is an ancient Greek name for Ramses II of Egypt. It is actually a Greek version of the Egyptian phrase "User-maat-Re," one of Ramses's Egyptian names. Why not just call the poem "User-maat-Re," you might ask? Well, this is Shelley, who had studied ancient Greek; it is therefore no surprise that he chooses to use the Greek name "Ozymandias," rather than the Egyptian name.
Ramses II was one of Egypt's greatest pharaohs, and many of the most famous tourist sites in Egypt, including the temple of Abu Simbel and the Ramesseum in Thebes, were built or planned during his incredibly long tenure (he lived until he was 90!). He is known not only for his building program, but also for several ambitious foreign military campaigns and for his diplomacy, especially with the Hittites, another important ancient people.
This poem has several settings. It begins with a strange encounter between the speaker and a traveler from an "antique land" (1). We have no idea where this rendezvous takes place, which is very weird. It could be in the speaker's head, in a dream, on the street, or in the desert; it sort of resembles something that might occur in a youth hostel or a tavern in London. The first appearance of Aragorn in the Fellowship of the Ring might be a good comparison.
Shortly after this initial meeting we are whisked away to the sands of Egypt, or a barren desert that closely resembles it. And this desert isn't just barren; it's really barren. Other than the legs, pedestal, and head of the statue, there's only sand. No trace remains of the civilization or culture that spawned the statue. It's a lot like something you'd see in Planet Earth: emptiness all around, a few sand-storms here, and that's about it. It reminds us of movies where people are stranded in the desert and eventually find a little oasis or the occasional tree, except that here we find a partially destroyed statue instead of a little pond.
Because the poem is inspired by a statue of Ramses II, we shouldn't be surprised to find so many references to this statue and to sculpting more generally. The "colossal" size of the statue is a symbol of Ramses's lofty self-promotion royal ambition. But statues and sculpture aren't all bad in this poem; they are also a vehicle for the poet to explore questions about the longevity of art, and its ability to capture "passions" (6) in a "lifeless" (7) medium like stones (or painting or even poetry).
Line 2: The traveler describes two "legs of stone" with no torso, our first indication that the statue is partly destroyed.
Line 4: The head of the statue is "shatter'd" and partially buried in the sand. "Visage" is a stand-in for the statue's head. (The use of one part of any object or entity to describe the whole is called synecdoche.)
Line 6-7: The sculptor was pretty good at representing Ramses's "passions" in the statue, which are "stamp'd" or engraved in stone. Even though the stones are "lifeless," they paradoxically give life to the "passions" that still "survive." There are three words in these two lines that start with "s"; the use of multiple words starting with the same letter is called alliteration.
Line 8: The "hand that mock'd" is another reference to the sculptor and the work of imitation he performs. "Hand" is another example of synecdoche, in which a part (the hand) stands in for the whole (the sculptor).
Line 9: Describes the base of the statue and the boast engraved on it.
Line 11: The inscription refers to "works," which might be a reference to other statues, works of art, or monuments commissioned by Ozymandias. This line is ambiguous; Ozymandias could be telling the mighty to despair because their works will never be as good as his or he could be telling them to despair because their works will all eventually crumble just like his. Ozymandias clearly doesn't intend this second meaning, but it's there whether he wants it or not. That's called dramatic irony.
Line 13: The poem again reminds us that there is a huge statue in the desert that is now a "colossal wreck."