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Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley. A poem about the transience of human endeavour

Updated on November 3, 2015

"Ozymandias" can teach us a lot

During my teenage years I attended a secondary school in Ireland. And in between the usual schoolboy antics of disrespecting the teachers and copying homework, (or in some cases, if you were clever enough, selling completed homework to your less bright fellows for cigarettes); I actually managed to learn a few things. There were two courses that I really managed to enjoy. One was History and the other was English and I have maintained a passion for both throughout my life. We actually learned real history in those days, dates and all. There was none of this watered-down humanities rubbish that is foisted on school kids nowadays. History was the story of great people and great events. It stirred my imagination and really gave me an appreciation of how the world came to be the place it was.

The teaching of English was approached in the same manner. We studied the prose of Dr Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke. I still like to think that my writing is occasionally influenced by the style of genius that could put “A Letter to Lord Chesterfield”or “Reflections on the Revolution in France" onto 18th century paper. The poems we learned about were equally inspirational. The works of William Butler Yeats and TS Eliot, among others, made a deep impression on me. The first lines of the “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” can still creak into the forefront of my memory without any great effort.

But I don't wish to write about TS Eliot today and Willie Yeats must wait for another time as well. The poem I would like to draw your attention to is “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley. The best way to start really is by quoting the entire work. It's only a sonnet, so it won't take too long for you to read.

“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:

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.”

Recently, the world has been transfixed by the spectacle of the London Olympics. Athletes from over 200 countries gathered to compete in order to win Gold, Silver or Bronze medals. Some of them were very successful and their efforts will give them justified fame in the generations that stretch into the future. The world has been lavish in its praise of the great spectacle of the games and the splendour of the new magnificent stadia, which were built to accommodate them.

Last week we took a day or two from praising the athletes, to marvel at the wonders revealed by the probe sent to Mars. The technology that created it and the stupendous intelligence of the team of scientists involved will stand for a monument to the great capacities of humanity in the twenty first century. In the months to come two individuals will be doing battle to see which one of them will become President of the United States. The terms “most powerful man in the world” and “leader of the free world” will be on everyone's lips for a while. I'm not sure which one of the candidates will be successful, but I'm guessing that they each think they are incredibly important people. The winner can expect to have thousands of people cheering at his inauguration. When he retires, biographies will be written about him and his statue may adorn public squares as relieving stations for future generations of pigeons.

Ozymandias was a very important person also in his day. When Shelley wrote the poem, he was referring to King Ramses II of Egypt. He also produced great works and he was talked about by many generations after him. But the stark image of the poem is, of the trunkless legs standing in the desert, with the half buried head of the great King fighting a losing battle with the drifting sands.

The contrast with the boastful words inscribed on the plinth couldn't be greater.

“And on the pedestal, these words appear:

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Perhaps the time has come to inscribe this poem on the front of every great structure that is produced by the hand of man. Maybe it should be hanging, in large frames, in the offices of all our leaders. Should “Ozymandias” be learned by heart by each and every one of us?

“Lay not up to yourselves treasures on earth: where the rust, and moth consume, and where thieves break through and steal.

But lay up to yourselves treasures in heaven: where neither the rust nor moth doth consume, and where thieves do not break through, nor steal.”

Matthew: 6/19-20

Is this a picture of Ozymandias?


Perhaps this is Ozymandias? Not the cat, of course.

Possibly the weirdest book ever. Readers love it though



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    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 4 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      I think you are making a very valid point there ziyena.

    • ziyena profile image

      ECLECTIC PLETHORA 4 years ago from LOST IN TIME

      I believe as an American that I have a right to comment here about my own President... he is an "Obamination", and the biggest mistake this country has ever made. His imperialist ideals offend everything my country was founded upon, and I can not wait for his rule to end.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 4 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      I love them myself and Ozymandias is one of my favourites.

    • Shyron E Shenko profile image

      Shyron E Shenko 4 years ago from Texas

      Christopher, where do I begin, you had from Ozymandias.

      I love poems, which was one gift from my mother. She would write all the time.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 5 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Me too Ralph. It reminds me of my schooldays. Thanks for reading.

    • Ralph Deeds profile image

      Ralph Deeds 5 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

      That's one of my all time favorite poems.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 5 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Thanks Wesman.

      The problem with people who are remembered for eons, is that they are frequently remembered for being complete bastards. I never want to be one of those and I'm certain you never will be.

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 5 years ago from Kaufman, Texas


      I need a "perfect" button to push!

      I'd forgot all about that poem, but of course I'd read it long ago. I'd forgotten it to the extent that only the name registered the following, "poem...English..."

      Yep. Each and every one of us to some degree or, maybe I went too far.

      MOST of us, to some degree or another truly think we're damned important. Oh I suppose we are too! But we're not so important that we'll be remembered forever.

    • Nellieanna profile image

      Nellieanna Hay 5 years ago from TEXAS

      smiling. . . .

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 5 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom


      There never was a truer word said.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 5 years ago from south Florida

      You almost always bring something very interesting as well as educational to the table, christopher, and this treatise about Shelley's poem, 'Ozymandias.' was no exception. Yes, 'Nothing beside remains ... ' which is why I follow the precepts of the amazing American humorist, Will Rogers, who said: "We are all here for a spell. Get all the good laughs you can." Amen!

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 5 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Hi Nellieanna.

      Most of my interest in history and literature came from outside school as well but I have school to thank for introducing me to poetry. Kids don't naturally gravitate to reading books of poems. That's where a good inspirational teacher can be invaluable.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 5 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Hi Nell.

      I think Romney will be a disaster for American foreign relations if he gets elected. The cultural insensitivity he showed last week, when he repeatedly referred to Sikhs as "Sheiks", would be funny if it was not so cringe making.

      Bush was not really all that bad in comparison.

    • Nellieanna profile image

      Nellieanna Hay 5 years ago from TEXAS

      My schooling was about those things, too, christopher. We respected the greats of history and literature. I was awed by this great poem and its message, though I suspect I may not have fully fathomed its knell. Probably the Miss Williamses (twin sister English teachers) impressed it on us, but being kids, we were unable to fully 'get it'. I developed much more respect for both history and literature after all my schooling was done.

      Thank you for this wonderful reminder and, indeed, your writing has many earmarks of the greats. It's a pleasure to read you! It's actually therapeutic.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 5 years ago from England

      Hi christopher, I always think that to a certain degree, that whenever someone stands up thinking they are great or better than someone else that there is always someone out there better, or you will be forgotten quicker than they thought! I do wonder about the Presidential elections, be interesting to see what happens, but if that Romney guy gets in then I have no idea why! he reminds me of the falsest man on the planet, that false smile, the waving of his head, the stupid mistakes he makes when he talks and just his complete lack of intelligence! at least Bush was funny! lol!

    • whonunuwho profile image

      whonunuwho 5 years ago from United States

      Right on, brother,chritospheranton, that's all of us.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 5 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      whonunuwho. Thanks for the comment

      I do sometimes wonder if we will ever learn and I definitely include myself here.

    • whonunuwho profile image

      whonunuwho 5 years ago from United States

      "History Repeats Itself"...I was depressed in reading your work, yet appreciated your candor and truths, It is our natures to repeat the same basic mistakes from eons in the past.I see this in your quotes . The final.."lay up your treasure in heaven" is comforting in its message of wisdom.

      Karl Marx, George Santayana, a great Spanish philosopher, and the beloved, Mark Twain, or Sam Clements (not necessarily in that order)are all noted in this similar remark.


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