Upon initially reading “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, the poem seems to be a typical Romantic work containing the figure of the traveler and dealing with themes of foreign adventure, the passage of time, and the struggle of man versus nature. However, the sonnet form supports more of a double meaning. The poetic voice is retelling a story told to them by a “…traveller from an antique land” (Shelley 1), immediately contextualizing the poem as more of a “tale” than a direct report. The romantic obsession with the past and the exotic is present in this line. The poem goes on to describe a decrepit statue which has been broken down and lost to the passage of time, despite what appears to be an assertion of the statue’s sake’s strength, “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” (Shelley 9-12). This moment perfectly encapsulates the double meaning present in Shelley’s sonnet.
The strict contrast between the declaration “Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair” and its immediate successor “Nothing beside remains” alludes to multiple intentions behind Shelley’s poem, which is not only concerned with an ancient civilization but an ancient regime. As “Ozymandias” was written during a period of political upheaval, and Ozymandias himself is said to be a “King of Kings” (Shelley 10), Shelley is likely writing with the current monarchies in mind, whether the fallen French or the persisting English. In my initial reading of lines 11-12, I saw irony in the contrast between the declaration of great “Works” and complete barrenness of the desert. In this reading, Shelley demonstrates the lack of self-awareness felt by the English monarchy in their inevitable obsolescence. However, my alternate reading of lines 11-12 perceived a self-awareness from Ozymandias himself, he is warning that the absence of his “Works” around his statue is the reason for despair from the “Mighty” he is speaking to. They too will be lost to the passage of time. According to the Longman Anthology reading, “With ever fresh fears of invasion, the [British] government clamped down on any form of political expression that hinted at French ideas” (Damrosch 17). With this historical context in mind, Shelley is affirming that the tightening of British law and increase of oppression is due to their fear of the failure of the French regime–just as Ozymandias’ fell. Or, to revisit my former reading of lines 11-12, Shelley could be suggesting that no matter what the British do to clutch to their power, they will inevitably lose it and become Ozymandias.