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.”
Since I first heard Shelley’s sonnet ‘Ozymandias’ at school, it has captured my imagination and probably led in part to my fascination for ancient Egypt. The poem was written in 1817 for a contest or game with his friend Horace Smith who also wrote a poem on the same theme. It is generally thought that ‘Ozymandias’ was inspired by the colossal fallen statue of Rameses II which I saw yesterday in the Ramesseum – though I am not so sure that this is the one. Rameses’ throne name, Usermaatre setepenre is transposed into the poetical name of Shelly’s king, a name which had been translated from a statue inscription by Diodorus Siculus. The sonnet is written in the style of a story that Shelley heard from another traveller who, having seen the lonely fragments of a statue, was struck by the desolation and ruin of this once great king, perhaps a metaphor for the crumbling of society or the destructive nature of history. The great king ‘Ozymandias’ who once wielded so much power and might, was now little more than decayed fragments of stone bearing a few arrogant words, his civilization now gone and crumbled to dust.
Perhaps that was the feeling in the early 19th century, but Rameses II is probably greater and more famous now than he has ever been in the whole period of Egyptian history!