These ruins of the statue of Rameses the Great inspired the following sonnets in 1817:



by Percy Bysshe Shelley

by Horace Smith

I met a traveller from an antique land

In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,

Who said:  “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

     Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,

     The only shadow that the Desert knows.

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

“I am great Ozymandias,” saith the stone,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

     “The King of kings: this mighty city shows

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

The wonders of my hand.”  The city’s gone!

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

     Nought but the leg remaining to disclose

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

The site of that forgotten Babylon.

And on the pedestal these words appear:

We wonder, and some hunter may express

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Wonder like ours, when through the wilderness

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

     Where London stood, holding the wolf in chase,

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

     What wonderful, but unrecorded, race

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

     Once dwelt in that annihilated place.



Ozymandias — A Greek name for the great Egyptian pharaoh Rameses II, also called the Great (c. 1303-1213 B.C.E.). Rameses was one of the greatest rulers of the ancient world. During his rule (1279-1213 B.C.E.), Egypt became the dominant military power in the region. He also engaged in a major building program, which involved temples, palaces, and even a whole new capital city, Pi-Rameses Aa-nakhtu. The archeological discovery of this city and the broken statue inspired Shelley and Smith to write these sonnets in a friendly competition. Both were published in Leigh Hunt’s weekly magazine The Examiner a few weeks apart in January 1818. To make the competition fair, both poems were published anonymously because Shelley was much better known as a poet.

traveller — This is a bit of poetic license, as no such traveller existed. It may also be a literary reference to Diodorus Siculus, an ancient Greek historian (he was from Sicily, which was ethnically and culturally Greek at the time), who wrote in his massive forty-volume Biblioteca Historica that Rameses’ statue bore the inscription “King of Kings am I, Ozymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works.”

survive — outlive. Note that Shelley is using this verb in a transitive way. Its direct objects are hand and heart.

lone and level sands — This is not quite accurate. Both Shelley and Smith were responding to a drawing of the statue that did not include all of the background. Little of Pi-Ramesses Aa-nakhtu survives, but as you can see in the pictures above, the statue does not actually stand by itself in the desert.


Ozymandias — Smith initially titled his poem the same as Shelley’s; later, he re-titled it “On a Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below.”

Babylon — The name of the famous city on the Euphrates River in Mesopotamia. It was one of the great cities of antiquity and at two different periods was the largest city in the world. Smith is using the word generically to represent a great and ancient city.