Percy Bysshe Shelley's sonnet "Ozymandias" is undoubtedly one of his most popular poems. Since the mid-nineteenth century, it has been anthologized countless times. Today, most educated people will have come across the poem. Its length and directness lend it to study in schools. Surprisingly, however, it has gotten little attention critically. This is probably due to the same factors which make it so popular: its simplicity and its shortness might make it seem unworthy of critical investigation. Indeed, its publication history suggests the poem, although true to Shelley's beliefs, originated more out of the author's public and social life and was not written with the intent of canonization.
Ozymandias was first published in Leigh Hunt's Examiner of January 11, 1818.(Everest 34) Hunt was a close friend of Shelley's. There was no difficulty for Shelley in getting this work published. The men were among the same literary and social circle and shared the same anti-authoritarian views. The sonnet was published over the name Glirastes, which was a name derived from an inside joke which started while the Shelleys were living at Marlow in 1817. The word means 'doormouse-lover'. 'Doormouse' was a petname Percy had for Mary during this period.(Everest 34)
Recently, the couples' social life had rapidly increased upon their moving in with the Hunts in February and subsequently making the acquaintances of Keats, Reynolds, Lamb, Hazlitt, the Cowden Clarkes, and others.(Bradley 36) 'Ozymandias' can be seen as a clever bid by Shelley to impress his newfound friends. Shelley's notorious intellectual conversations had apparently yielded a friendly competition on the topic between him and Horace Smith. The poem was written between December 26 and 28 1817, during which time Smith was a guest at Marlow with the Shelleys. Horace has a poem on a very similar subject published in the Examiner on February 1 1818.(Everest 35)
In its initial publication, it is evident through its editing first of all that Shelley was not much involved and also that the poem was carelessly printed. The quotation marks opened on the second line are never closed! Furthermore, the two lines attributed directly to the tyrant Ozymandias read, "'My name is OZYMANDIAS, King of Kings.'/ Look on my words, ye Mighty, and despair!"(Hunt 24) Of the two lines printed on the pedestal, only one is put into quotation marks. The overcapitalization of this version, most notable in the "visually mannered" spelling of 'OZYMANDIAS', is not present in Shelley's rough drafts found in his journals. This suggests Hunt's editorial domination over this first printed version. Hunt himself was very prone to plentiful capitalization.
It is probable that Hunt, the editor himself was involved in or at least aware of the competition which fathered the sonnet. He later accidentally sent 'Ozymandias' to Keats' editor as the sonnet 'To the Nile', which is known definitively to have been written by Shelley in competition with Keats and Hunt in 1818.(Rollins 182) These competitions were commonplace among Shelley's circle and yielded much of the participants' shorter works. 'Ozymandias' is unique in that it has gained so much recognition for what was, essentially, a knock-off poem.
Ozymandias's second publication was in Shelley's Rosalind and Helen volume of 1819, where it is included as one of a "few scattered poems I left in England." In his 'Advertisement', Shelley points out that the poem was selected for the book by his 'bookseller' and not by himself. By his reference to the poem in such nonchalant terms as "scattered" and by his rejection of responsibility for its presence in his new volume of long, heavy poetry, it is obvious that Shelley is not particularly proud of this piece. Speech marks have in this edition been repaired to properly match Shelley's intent as seen in his journals, and "OZYMANDIAS" has been brought back down notch to "Ozymandias". There is nothing to suggest that the Rosalind and Helen text was treated with a corrected manuscript supplied by Shelley, but critics agree that it is truer to Shelley because it more resembles the forms of presentation in the poems which he did personally guide through the press. Still, this version, not controlled by Shelley in its printing, diverges from the version of Shelley's journals in major ways. Most notable is its change of "dessert" to "desart". This spelling gives the word a more archaic feel, giving a different impression of the story-teller and making his story itself seem more fanciful and less ironically objective than in other versions. Whether Shelley favored this mutation and its consequences remains uncertain, but the effect was probably not so strong on the reader of his time. Today it has been changed back to "desert". When the poem was again published by Mary Shelley in 1839 after Percy Shelley's death, it was based on the version from Rosalind and Helen. Almost all subsequent editions of the nineteenth century come from Mary Shelley's version.(Everest 37)
The main intellectual inspiration for this poem was, of course, Shelley's strong distaste for tyranny. Given his natural rebellious nature, it is likely the poem alludes to the modern rule of England. In March of the same year, habeas corpus had been suspended for government fear of pressures to reform.(Bradley 37) Later, in November, three men were hanged and mutilated for leading the Pentridge Revolution (a workers' uprising) which occurred in June. This prompted Shelley's An Address to the People which cannot be found in print today but which points out the injustices of the government.(Bradley 38)
The structure of the poem itself is a sign of Shelley's rebelliousness. Shelley wrote few sonnets. Not surprisingly, when he does write one with Ozymandias, it goes against the grain of accepted sonnet format. Ozymandias experiments with the sonnet form. Its rhyme scheme is odd and hard to follow: ababacdcedefef. Also, it makes notable use of disorienting half-rhymes like "stone"/"frown" and "appear"/"bare".
It is utterly ironic that what was written as a vitriol against the arrogance of man exemplified by the surviving yet unfounded pride of a long-dethroned tyrant can be seen in retrospect as a confession of the author's own pride above all else. Not to say that Percy Shelley was a 'tyrant' in his own field, but it is true that the poet did yield tremendous influence during his time in the literary realm and today is one of the least-studied Romantic poets. It was just as easy for Shelley to get his friend to publish Ozymandias in the Examiner as it presumably was for his character Ozymandias to commission his sculptor to immortalize him in stone. Likewise, just as it was possible for the artist to mock Ozymandias, as some analyses argue, "whose frown,/ And wrinkled lips, & sneer of cold command,/ Tell that its sculptor well those passions read", so did the actual distributors of Ozymandias take poetic license with Shelley's poem, changing its meaning, slightly as they did, in the process.
Bradley, J.L. A Shelley Chronology. London: The Macmillon Press, 1993.
Everest, Kelvin, Ed. Essays and Studies 1992: Percy Bysshe Shelley. 'Ozymandias: The Text in Time, Kelvin Everest. Cambridge: Brewer, 1992.
Examiner No. 524 11 January 1818. Ed. Hunt
Rollins, Hyder Edward. The Keatz Circle, 2 volumes. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge, 1965.