Travelers from an Antique Land: Shelley's Inspiration for "Ozymandias"

By Rodenbeck, John | Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, Annual 2004 | Go to article overview

Travelers from an Antique Land: Shelley's Inspiration for "Ozymandias"


Rodenbeck, John, Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics


An enduring myth about artists of all kinds is that work arises from personal physical experience. A case in point is Shelley's great political sonnet "Ozymandias," which is conventionally presumed to have been "inspired" by an ancient Egyptian sculpture. Shelley never traveled to Egypt and thus certainly never saw the landscape he describes in his sonnet. Contrary to popular belief, moreover, he likewise never saw the sculptured head allegedly described in the sonnet, which did not arrive in England until a day or two after he and his family had moved permanently to Italy and more than six months after he had published the poem. All the sources and influences visible in the poem were entirely literary and all were part of the common currency of the era. Apart from Diodorus Siculus and the political sonnets of Milton and Wordsworth, they include several classics of travel literature in English and French, most notably the work of Volney.

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This article concentrates on one of the greatest and most famous poems in the English language, Shelley's masterly sonnet "Ozymandias," and deals with three areas of inquiry: 1) the sources of the poem in contemporary travel literature, 2) its meaning, and 3) what its sources and meaning tell us about the nature of "poetic inspiration."

Travel literature offers experience to the entirety of a literate public and for that reason alone has historically had far greater cultural impact than the experience of mere travel itself, which can only be individual and private. To take one small and suggestive example: the two most popular manuscript texts of the late Middle Ages were probably Mandeville's Travels and Marco Polo's Description of the World. Like Herodotus' Histories, these two books are literary compilations, rather than simple records or observations, and as such they quite rightly include fictional elements. It was inevitable that they should have been among the earliest European best-sellers in print, anticipating by many decades the great Renaissance collections of Ramusio and Hakluyt. (1)

But what were the needs they obviously fulfilled? The question cannot begin to be answered until we bear in mind that they inspired not only More's Utopia--the fountainhead of an artistic lineage that includes major works of Rabelais, Cervantes, Bacon, Swift, Defoe, Voltaire, Melville, Twain, Shaw, Wells, Huxley, Orwell, Nabokov, and Calvino, not to mention V. S. Naipaul, Paul Theroux and J. G. Ballard--but also Columbus' voyage in search of the Indies.

In the case of Shelley's "Ozymandias" the fact that the poem has nothing to do with the poet/speaker's personal physical experience is announced by the first line, which tells us explicitly that the person who had the fictive experience that the poem uses as its central metaphor was not the poet-speaker at all, but "a traveler":

Ozymandias

      I met a traveler 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 shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
   5 And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
        Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
      Which yet survive--stamp'd on these lifeless things--
      The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed;
        And on the pedestal these words appear:
   10 '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."

The name Ozymandias is a Greek rendition of "cUser-macat-rec," the first element in the praenomen or throne name of the ancient Egyptian king now usually known instead by his Ra-name as Ramesses II (1279-1212 B.C.). His mortuary temple was definitively identified at long last by Jean Francois Champollion (1790-1832) in 1829. …

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