Ozymandias relates an experience of a traveler from Egypt. This traveler saw two huge and trunkless legs of a statue in the desert. Near them lay, half-buried, the broken face of the statue. On this face can still be seen the expression of haughtiness and a sense of authority which had skillfully been depicted by the sculptor, and which survives the sculptor. On the pedestal, the following words were inscribed: “My name is Ozymandias and I am a great king. Look at the great deeds which I have accomplished and which nobody can equal.” Round the broken statue stretched a vast desert.
In form, this poem is a sonnet. The sonnet-form was not really suited to Shelley’s genius because the sonnet imposes restraints and restrictions under which Shelley must have felt impatient. For this reason, Shelley wrote very few sonnets and failed to achieve distinction in them. This poem, for instance, does not rigidly obey the accepted conventions of the form of the sonnet. The rhyme scheme does not follow any of the recognized patterns, and some of the rhymes are faulty (for instance, stone and frown; appear and despair).
But though not flawless, it is the best of the few sonnets that Shelley wrote. It has earned high praise from critics and is considered a most powerful, imaginative, and suggestive poem. Its moral goes home to our hearts with force and vigor. Human glory and pomp are not everlasting. Hammers of decay quickly follow the hammers of construction. Time works havoc with buildings and monuments. But the moral is not directly stated. The poet only presents a picture to our minds and we have ourselves to draw the moral. It is a didactic poem, but its moral is not thrust upon us directly. Shelley said that didacticism was his abhorrence and he did not, therefore, directly preach moral lessons.
There is a touch of melancholy about the poem because it makes us reflect on the vanity of human wishes and the failure of all our efforts to keep our memory alive forever. The contrast between the past glory of the king and the present condition of the statue is very striking to the mind and emphasizes the moral of the poem. The concluding lines of the poem are particularly remarkable for their suggestiveness. The sonnet contains two note-worthy pictures. One is the picture of the broken statue, a huge wreck, the face of which still wears the picture of the lone and level desert, boundless and bare, stretching far away.