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Shelley's Ozymandias - Napoleon or Walter White?

Updated on March 5, 2015

Ozymandias 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."

A portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint
A portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint | Source

Introduction

Ozymandias has always been one of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s most popular poems. These days, both the name Ozymandias and the poem associated with it have become know to a whole new generation of TV drama lovers who would otherwise probably not go anywhere near English romantic poetry. The AMC drama series is as popular here in the UK as it is in the United States. Ozymandias is the name of the 6th episode of the final season of Breaking Bad and the poem itself is recited by Bryan Cranston, the actor who plays the anti-hero Walter White, in a trailer for the final series.

The Parish Church in the centre of Horsham, Shelley's home town
The Parish Church in the centre of Horsham, Shelley's home town | Source

Who Was Shelley?

Percy Bysshe Shelley was born in 1792, near Horsham in West Sussex. Shelley’s family were wealthy, conservative and conventional. Shelley was radical and unconventional, and consequently had very little money until his grandfather’s death, which brought him a modest annual income. Most of Shelley’s best known and best loved poems take their subject matter from the world of nature. To a Skylark and Ode to the West Wind are among his most popular poems. I am lucky enough to live just half an hour’s walk away from the house in which Shelley was born. It give me a deep joy to look upon the same trees and cross the same rivers as one of my favourite poets. The spring bluebells in Shelley’s Wood, near Christ’s Hospital, would have charmed him as much as they delight us.

English bluebells in spring - a sight Shelley would have seen and loved.
English bluebells in spring - a sight Shelley would have seen and loved. | Source

Who Was Ozymandias?

Ozymandias is the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II. (The name is variously spelled as Rameses or Ramses). The name Ozymandias is a garbled Greek transliteration of one of Ramesses’ royal names: User-ma-Ra.

Ramesses II lived and ruled for most of the 13 century BC. Buried in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor. He ruled Egypt for 66 years and fathered 85 children. This tomb included a seated statue of the Pharaoh with an incription similar to the one found in the Shelley poem. But the statue in the poem is clearly a standing statue, which seems to resemble a statue of Ramesses found in the Temple of Ptha near Memphis. This statue was broken when it was discovered but it clearly was of enormous size. It would have been about 11 meters high and weight would have been somehere in the region of 83 tons. However, Shelley cannot have had this particular statue in mind. It was only discovered in 1820 and Shelley’s poem dates from 1817, three years earlier.

Photograph of Ramesses II, known to Greek historians as Ozymandias
Photograph of Ramesses II, known to Greek historians as Ozymandias | Source

A Reading of Shelley's Ozymandias

Like so many great poems, Shelley’s Ozymandias seems perfectly simple and straightforward to begin with, but on closer inspection it reveals a number of interesting and illuminating details which you might not notice at a first reading.

Take the first line, for example. Why does Shelley begin like this? Why does he introduce a nameless narrator to tell the story instead of telling us the story directly? He could have begun: “I was travelling in an antique land / And found two vast and trunkless legs of stone…”. But he doesn’t do that. Why? I think that Shelley wants to put as much distance as he can between us the readers and Ozymandias himself. The introduction of a third-party narrator enables him to do this.

The following lines which describe the size and condition of the statue are simple enough to comprehend. Yet we may wonder how such a large statue came to be in such a damaged state. Would natural forces have done such damage? I suspect not. I think that the suggestion here is that the statue has been deliberately destroyed, probably by enemy forces. This perhaps gives the “shattered” visage a certain pathos.

Lines six to eight can be a little difficult to understand at a first reading so I paraphrase them as follows: the sculptor was able to understand and capture those passions (i.e. coldness, arrogance, cruelty, love of power etc) and those passions have survived – they have survived the hand of the man who imitated them (“mock” can mean “derive” or “imitate”. When we mock someone we usually imitate them in a way which caricatures them) and the heart of the man who fed them. These lines are very important. What has survived is not a glorious monument to a supremely powerful ruler but shattered evidence of the that ruler’s cruelty and arrogance.

The pedestal inscription in the poem is very similar to the inscripton on a huge, seated statue of Ramesses which was placed in his tomb. According to the first century Greek historian Diodorus Siculus the original inscription ran as follows:

“King of Kings I am, Osymandyas (sic). If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works” (Diodorus Siculus, Bibilioteca Historia 1.47, translated by C. Oldfather 1933. Translation is in the public domain). Nothing else remains but an empty desert, a smashed face and broken evidence of cruel passions.

What does the poem really mean?

I think that the moral of the poem is fairly clear. However powerful you are, however rich you are, however successful you think you are, these thing will not last forever. Maybe the destruction you wreak will outlast any “positive “ achievements. The relevance of this to Walter White in Breaking Bad will be obvious to anyone who has seen the series. As some of you may not have seen it yet I’d better not say anymore!

But did Shelley have anyone in particular in mind when he wrote that poem? I think that he did, and I think that the person he had in mind was Napoleon Bonaparte. Shelley only lived for three short decades – 1797 to 1822. But this was the period of the French Revolution.

In his personal correspondence, Shelley is curiously silent about Napoleon. But Napoleon does sometimes crop up in the poems. In 1816, the year after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, Shelley published a poem entitled Feelings of a Republican on the Fall of Bonaparte. It is not one of his best. Here are the first four lines:

I hated thee, fallen tyrant! I did groan

To think that a most unambitious slave,

Like thou, should’st dance and revel on the grave

Of Liberty.

It is merely an expression of personal anger directed against Napoleon personally. This is Shelley in a temper, shouting and banging the table. Here, he is letting his feelings get the better of his literary judgement. Napoleon can be accused of many things, but lack of ambition surely isn’t one of them!

Ozymandias isn’t about Napoleon personally; it is about tyranny in general. And its message is quite simple. Tyrants fall. Liberty survives. As Jesus said: Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth (Matthew V. 5).

Shelley's Ozymandias, read by Richard Attenborough

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    • Neil S Hall profile image
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      Dr Neil S Hall 2 years ago from Horsham, West Sussex, England

      lions44 - thank you very much indeed. I will catch up with your writing as soon as I have a spare hour!

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 2 years ago from Auburn, WA

      This gave me great insight into a tough subject. Thx. Voted up and shared.

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