On the sand, half sunk…

A couple of years ago, I did a MOOC (massive open on-line course) about architecture. I really enjoyed it, and learnt a great deal from it.

Here is one of my assignments:


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

Ozymandias is a sonnet by the English poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, written  in 1818 in competition with a fellow poet, Horace Smith. Shelley,  born in 1792, was an associate of many of the greatest poets of the time, including Byron, and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, author of Dr Frankenstein, who became Shelley’s second wife. Shelley died at the age of twenty-nine.

There have been various suggestions as to the genesis of this sonnet, such as the imminent arrival of a statue of Ramses II in London for an exhibition, as Ozymandias is another name for that pharaoh. However, the meaning of the poem goes beyond a mere description of an antique statue, it is a reflection on impermanence of even the greatest of men.

I chose this piece because as someone interested in archaeology the images it conjures are not of the once magnificent pharaoh, powerful and mighty, but of an artefact which stirs my imagination and curiosity. If I had come across the ‘trunkless legs of stone’ in a deserted and lonely place, my response would n’t have been to wonder about the man, but to wonder about the statue. Who’d carved it and why? What was its significance in its time? What was its original context – temple, palace, avenue of other statues? I’d have immediately been intrigued at the thought of more evidence lying beneath the ‘boundless and bare, the lone and level sands’. What was the real meaning of the inscription on the base of the statue, presumably written when the statue was whole and complete… or had it? An archaeologist would have to examine the evidence to see if the inscription was contemporary to the statue. An archaeologist might have other knowledge or experience which would help explain what is there in the desert.

This sonnet of fourteen lines, has an unusual rhyme scheme which links the first eight lines to the last six, giving form and a sort of energy to the verse as the lines are linked by the rhymes. It is written in iambic pentameter (a particular form of poetry with a distinct rhythm) which gives a strong feel to the verse, echoing the strong and enduring statue, which though broken, still stands so enigmatically and powerfully. The sonnet is significant as one of the finest examples of the form in the English language, and considered by many to be among the best of Shelley’s work.

To me it does give an idea of what archaeologists might find in the field, a broken yet still potent object. Though ruined, the mighty legs stills stand, and the face of the statue is realistic and open to the modern eye. Shelley describes it as a life-like representation of a powerful and ruthless man “whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command” conveys his contempt for those he ‘stamped on’ and ‘mocked’. Shelley was not an archaeologist, he interprets the expression in a way contemporary to himself; and archaeologist would have to consider the sculptors that Shelley mentions, but also whoever may have commissioned the statue, and any related myths or religious significance which we might be able to deduce from other information or other evidence.

I do like this sonnet, very much. Anyone who produces some form of art, painting, poem, novel, whatever, enters into a relationship with the reader/viewer which the artist cannot control. The person regarding the object has his/her own thoughts and opinions and influences which make the work open to many interpretations. I also like it because it is very clever, and I would recommend it to anyone who has imagination, who likes to look beneath the surface and is open to viewing things from an original point of view.

© Lois Elsden 2017


  1. buyingseafood

    I was taught the inspiration for the sonnet was the ruined colossus of Rameses at his funerary complex. It may be the largest Egyptian statue carved from a single block. Ozymandias is the Greek re-interpretation of Rameses throne name: User-maat-ra. Thanks for posting, I miss archaeology.

    Liked by 1 person

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