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.
-Percy Bysshe Shelley
Earlier in 1817, Leigh Hunt, Percy Shelley, and John Keats had written competing poems about the Nile River. In December of that year, the author Horace Smith spent Christmas with the Shelleys and the two men engaged in a friendly rivalry to write the best poem on a chosen topic. They picked a passage from 1st century BC Greek historian Diodorus Siculus' Bibliotheca historica, which describes the inscription on an ancient Egyptian statue: "King of Kings Ozymandias am I. If any want to know how great I am and where I lie, let him outdo me in my work."
The word Ozymandias is a Greek form of the name of Ramses II of Egypt, who reigned from 1279-1213 BC. It is thought that Shelley and Smith may have chosen this topic because a huge statue of Ramses II had been purchased by the British Museum the previous year, although it wouldn't actually arrive in England until 1821. The poem Ozymandias is a sonnet: a 14 line poem with a defined rhyme scheme, although in this case Shelley's iambic pentameter is somewhat irregular.
There are three voices in the sonnet: that of the author- "I", the traveller who relates what he saw, and Ozymandias himself, whose words are inscribed on the crumbled statue.
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command", and it has been suggested that Shelley may have been thinking of Napoleon, who had been defeated and exiled to Saint Helena in 1815.
The hubris of Ozymandias led him to believe that he would never be forgotten, that his works would never be surpassed, and the edifices he built would stand forever. Yet, as the traveller reads the arrogant pronouncement on the base of the colossal ruin, it is obvious that the broken statue is all that remains of the tyrant's once mighty and imposing empire. Even his power and prestige could not withstand the ravages of time.