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Notwithstanding its probable origin in a domestic recreation, ‘Ozymandias’ is written with considerable skill.
In such competitions two or more poets would each write a sonnet on an agreed subject against the clock.
‘Ozymandias’ was first printed in , published in 1819.
The poem does not end with a moral truism, but with the simple, striking image of the desert sands.
‘Ozymandias’ is as much about the survival of creativity as the transience of tyranny.
On the surface, Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ozymandias" is Shelley's representation of the posthumous conception of the Egyptian Pharoh named Ramses II (which in Greek translates into Ozymandias).
More importantly however, "Ozymandias" comments on the temporal nature of the things humans strive most for.
Round the decay / Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away’.
Shelley lived in a period when the British government, fearful of revolution, took oppressive measures against radicalism. His hatred of tyranny is well-known and was eloquently expressed in much of his prose and correspondence; but while political events occasionally prompted him to write a poem, most famously when he composed in response to the Peterloo Massacre in 1818, he never treated poetry as a vehicle for explicit political comment or moral argument.
In the poem a ‘traveller from an antique land’ describes to the poet the crumbling remains of a colossal statue he had encountered in the desert of an ancient Egyptian tyrant.
The head of the statue, now lying on the sands, preserves the tyrant’s ‘sneer of cold command’; on the statue’s pedestal is a vainglorious inscription: ‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; / Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! 85v), and Horace Smith's rival sonnet has an almost identical phrase, so perhaps this was the cue for their competition.