The short but tumultuous life of the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), one of the greatest of the Romantic poets of the early 19th century, shows him to have been a man of contradictions. He disapproved of matrimony – but married twice; he was a vegetarian (rare at the time), a republican and a Radical. He was thrown out of Eton for expressing atheistic views. But he was also intelligent and highly imaginative and has been described as ‘the poet of volcanic hope for a better world’. At his best, as in his sonnet Ozymandias, he is inimitable.
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) by Amelia Curran, Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.
I met a traveller 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 shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tells that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings,
Look on my words, 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.”
I have always loved the poem, and, recently, I was lucky enough to see the actual remains of ‘that colossal wreck’ for myself when I visited the Royal Cult Temple of Ramesses II (1279-1213 B.C.), also known as the Ramesseum, in Egypt. The thought occurred that a blog about the Ramesseum,, Shelley, his poem, and the link with Ramesses II might be interesting.
The Ramesseum from the side: the second pylon (dilapidated and propped up by modern buttresses) is on the left and the hypostyle hall is on the right
The story of how Shelley’s poem came about is a curious one, and the colossal archaeological remains also have a their own story to tell.
So, how are they connected? To start with Shelley. It was not unusual for the members of Shelley’s literary circle to challenge each other to write competing sonnets on a specific topic, and Shelley and his banker friend, Horace Smith, chose a passage from the Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus, (c.80-20 B.C.) describing an immense Egyptian statue of ‘Ozymandyas’, the Ancient Greek interpretation of Ramesses’ throne name, ‘Usermaatra’.
This is what Diodorus tells us … ‘beside the entrance (to the temple) are three statues, each of a single block of black stone from Syene, of which one, that is seated, is the largest of any in Egypt, the foot measuring over seven cubits*, while the other two at the knees of this, the one on the right and the other on the left, daughter and mother respectively, are smaller than the one first mentioned. And it is not merely for its size that this work merits approbation, but it is also marvellous by reason of its artistic quality and excellent because of the nature of the stone, since in a block of so great a size there is not a single crack or blemish to be seen. The inscription upon it runs: ‘King of Kings am I, Osymandyas. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works.’
(*A cubit was the length between the tip of the fingers and the elbow – roughly 18-22 inches.)
Diodorus probably travelled to Egypt between 60-56 BC but may not have reached the Ramesseum itself, over 400 miles to the south, and relied on others’ eyewitness accounts which are now lost. He obviously believed that the statues were then still standing – and had already done so for 1200 years.
So let’s take a look at what, exactly, there is to see at Ramesses II’s Royal Cult Temple. Egyptian temple complexes tend to share a similar ground plan; that is, they comprise a number of buildings arranged in a rectangle within an exterior, enclosing wall.
The hypostyle hall – a forest of 48 columns
Very few people were entitled to enter the sacred space, that was reserved for the pharaoh: carefully chosen members of his entourage, and the priests. However, as time-travellers from the future, we are allowed to enter through the impressive pylon, a gateway with sloping sides (you can see at once how electricity pylons got their name) and find ourselves in the first of a number of courts. Then we come to the hypostyle hall, that is a roof supported by pillars – my first thought was that it looked like a densely packed forest of columns – before passing into the temple of Sety I, Ramesses II’s father. At the very end is the sanctuary, or inner shrine.
Attached to the main buildings there are usually a number of vestibules with various functions (rather like side chapels, sacristy or Chapter house in a cathedral) as well as workshops and storerooms.
It is obvious, even now, well over 3000 years later, that the temple complex of the Ramesseum would have been a busy place. If Shelley could have seen it for himself, he would instantly have realized that the location was by no means ‘boundless and bare’, as his poem has it.
Fallen Temple G at Selinute, Sicily – note the tell-tale domino effect on the columns
Opinions differ on how the statue of Ozymandias fell so dramatically. One possible answer is a massive earthquake. Initially, that sounds plausible, but then I remembered seeing the fallen columns of the temples of Selinute in Sicily where a huge earthquake brought down temple columns in lines like fallen dominoes. If Ozymandias had been toppled by an earthquake, why weren’t the columns inside the hypostyle lying against each other like fallen dominoes? The rest of the Ramesseum temple is ruinous but still upright; I think it’s unlikely that an earthquake would have toppled the sitting Ozymandias figure and left everything else untouched.
Ozymandias’s feet still stand on the plinth. But something else lies behind.
So what did I see? Instantly, I spotted the fallen Ozymandias, though all I could see were the huge feet, still attached the the plinth, and what looked liked a bit of head behind it.
The fallen Ozymandias. Note the half a human figure standing to the left of the photo. I kept her in the frame to show the scale
Walking carefully round the back of the plinth, I came to some more fallen fragments, The broken head is on the left. You can just make out Ramesses’ pharaoh’s stripy head dress with faint traces of colour still remaining. Then comes the massive curve of his shoulder and then a bit of torso.
Anna Garnett in her The Colossal Statue of Ramesses II, published by the British Museum Press, notes that the statue was still upright in the mid-18th century. Early 19th century travellers accused the French, who had arrived in Egypt with Napoleon in 1798, of blowing up the statue and pointed to a suspicious hole in the chest of a second Ramesses statue, still seated. We do not know what really happened.
Looking back through the hypostyle to the fallen Ozymandias just visible in the open court.
However, by the time Shelley wrote Ozymandias, interest in Egyptian antiquities had gripped the nation, and Shelley, who had had a classical education at Eton, would have read Diodorus’s history for himself. With the downfall of Napoleon in 1815 and the subsequent Treaty of Alexandria with Britain, the British crown sneakily laid claim to all the Egyptian antiquities which had been acquired by the French, including the Rosetta stone and the massive sarcophagus of Nectanebo, and donated them to King George III, who gave them to the British Museum which was then housed in Montague House.
Giovanni Belzoni (1778-1823, actor, traveller, hydraulics expert. It was he who brought the bust of Ramesses II to London.
Unfortunately, the floors there were quite incapable of supporting the weight of the sarcophagus of Nectanebo which had to be temporarily stored in a garden shed. But something had to be done – and soon. The Museum was anxious to acquire more impressive statuary. In 1816, Henry Salt, the British Consul in Egypt, commissioned Giovanni Belzoni, the maverick actor, traveller and engineer, to bring back the head and body of the largely uninjured (apart from the hole in his chest) statue of Ramesses, sail it down the Nile and bring it to the British Museum.
Belzoni left his signature on the walls of the hypostyle hall in the Ramesseum
The long journey of the Ramesses II’s head and torso was front page news and, although the statue didn’t arrive at the British Museum until January 1819, long after Shelley’s poem was published, nevertheless, its imminent arrival was well-known to Shelley and his friends.
Leigh Hunt by Samuel Laurence, c. 1837. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
Shelley’s Ozymandias poem was published on 11th January, 1818, under a pseudonym, Glirastes, in the Examiner, the literary and political journal, published by his friend, Leigh Hunt. The Examiner published a wide range of essays on various contentious topics (Hunt was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for libelling the Prince Regent in the Examiner) so, naturally, he supported avant garde poets like Byron and Keats; the ethical thinker, Jeremy Bentham; and the journalist, William Hazlitt. The name, Ozymandias, might be a variant of a real Pharaoh’s name, the statue might indeed exist, but everything else in the poem comes from Shelley’s fertile brain.
The bulk of the broken Ozymandias torso lies within the second court of the Ramesseum, between the second pylon and the hypostyle hall. You can see the head and torso in the background.
Shelley, the Radical, pictures the fallen colossus as lying shattered and alone in a vast, bare landscape, symbolizing the futility of so-called great leaders immortalizing their own tyrannical power through colossal works of statuary. The poem can also be seen as an attack on despotic power which actually brings desolation in its wake – as seen in the ‘lone and level sands’.
Ramesses II in the Egyptian Gallery, the British Museum. Note the unexplained hole in his chest.
So let’s look at the actual face of Ramesses II, now in pride of place in the Egyptian Gallery at the British Museum. It is not that of a cold, frowning, cruel man with ‘wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command’. Far from it. Ramesses is a noticeably handsome young man, with a smooth forehead and a lightly amused smile. Ancient Egyptian statues were never meant to resemble the sitter; the pharaoh was an idealized figure, there to be worshipped.
It took me some time to realize that both statues were of Ramesses/Ozymandias. The one Shelley wrote about is the fallen one, which I saw in the Ramesseum. And the one which Belzoni brought back to England, originally sat only a few yards away from the fallen one in the same Royal Cult temple.
Deir el-Medina, where the craftsmen lived who built the Ramesseum.
On the same day that we visited the Ramesseum, we also visited Deir el-Medina, the village built specially for the craftsmen working on nearby tombs and temples.
Shelley’s friend and author of the other Ozymandias poem, Horace Smith, by an unknown artist. 1840. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.
So, let’s look at Horace Smith’s contribution. Here is his sonnet on the same theme, published in the Examiner, on 1st February, 1818. Originally, it had the same title as Shelley’s poem but, later, Smith renamed it, rather ponderously, one feels: ‘On A stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below’
In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows –
‘I am the great OZYMANDIAS,’ saith the stone,
‘The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
‘The wonders of my hand.’ – The City’s gone –
Naught but the Leg remaining to disclose
The Site of this forgotten Babylon.
We wonder – and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the wolf in chase,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
Smith’s poem treats the Ozymandias theme in a similar way to Shelley, but he relates it more specifically to London, then the largest city in the world. The capital was often labelled ‘The Modern Babylon ‘ by its 19th century critics, and it inspired contradictory emotions. Wordsworth, in his sonnet ‘On Westminster Bridge’ (1807) thought that ‘Earth has not anything to show more fair’ , and admired the splendour of its architecture, both sacred and secular. William Blake, writing at about the same time, was more concerned about the city’s inhumanity towards the poor and helpless, like London’s child chimney-sweeps.
Visiting the many remains of Ramesses II’s Egypt, I found myself thinking that each generation bring its own conceptions to Ancient Egypt’s architecture and statuary. Whatever one thinks, they, surely, have something important to say about the variety of human achievement and what it tells us about ourselves as well as about the past.
Elizabeth travelled with Andante. www.andantetravels.com
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11 thoughts on “Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ and Ramesses II”
Oh, Elizabeth! What have you done? Fascinating as this history is, I am shattered to find out that Shelley invented the lone and level sands… Like you, that has long been one of my favourite poems. The resonance of the final line has remained with me for years and years. Nor had I the least idea that the reference was to Rameses.
Well, I shall continue to regard the poem as itself and love it for Shelley’s imaginative spin. Art may cloud reality, but sometimes one just has to prefer the poet’s version!
It is a wonderful line, isn’t it? I love the long, slow vowel sounds and the alliteration. And hearing it read in the Ramessseum itself with the fallen statue only yards away was just magic. I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
I can imagine! It must have been a hugely evocative place to visit.
Thank you for this post, Elizabeth. I have always loved this poem even though I discovered many many years ago that Shelley’s version owed more to his imagination than historical fact. Interesting too that you mention Belzoni, I think his exploits were amazing and I used him as a role model for the hero of one of my Regency novels who had been a soldier with Sir Ralph Abercromby in Egypt. It was great fun having my hero explore tombs and so on!
Thank you for your comment, Gail. I was rather taken with Belzoni myself. He was the sort of man who wasn’t overly impressed by his superiors; he told the British Consul in Egypt, Henry Salt, what he was going to do – and did it. He later wrote a lively ‘Narrative’ telling of his adventures and explaining exactly how he moved the statue.
For me what most stands out about Belzoni is his plundering of the Ramesseum. He may have been colorful but he was also like Elgin with his looting of the Parthenon arrogant in presuming he had the right to steal ancient treasures from defenseless countries. (Personally I’d like to lay claim to Stonehenge.) The world was a different place back then, some might say. Maybe, maybe not. Then as now, though, hubris continues to trump conscience nearly every time. And that ain’t ever gonna change. Please prove me wrong.
Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Larry. We cannot change the past, alas. As L. P. Hartley put it, ‘The past is another country, they do things differently there.’ All we can do is try and understand it – and strive to do the best we can for the world in which we now live.
This may be the best blog post of yours that I’ve read so far. You must have spent a good deal of time working on it.
Though I don’t really have much of an ear for poetry, the way you’ve delved into this poem and it’s origins I found very compelling.
I wonder how Shelley and Smith’s poems would have changed if they had actually seen the site of Ozymandias themselves?
By the way, seven Cubits is about three Metres, which would seem about right for the statue in the British museum, but I would guess that the fallen statue at the Ramesseum to many times taller.
Thank you, Huon,for your appreciative comments. It’s true that the post took ages to write – there were several different strands to be interwoven and I didn’t want the archaeology to overwhelm the poetry – or vice versa. And, of course, I wanted the architectural bits to be accurate. Fortunately, a kind email from our Guide Lecturer saw to it that I got the topography right.
Re: Shelley and Horace Smith actually seeing the fallen statue in situ for themselves – we cannot know. There must be hundreds of Ramesses II statues in Egypt – his was a long reign, from 1279-1213 BC, and he built many temples – and Shelley was no friend of despots.
Thank you, Elizabeth – I have learned so much from this fascinating blog and you mingle the different elements with such skill.
I enjoyed your detective work about the cause of the statue’s collapse – the earthquake versus the French blowing it up – and was convinced by your conclusions. I have to admit, though, that I did feel disappointed that the level sands were an invention!
It must have been wonderful to experience all this, and thanks for sharing it with us.
Thank you for your comment, Eleanor. Perhaps, though, I wasn’t clear. There were indeed level sands which stretched far away – it’s just that they weren’t ‘lone’! They were next to Karnak, one of the biggest temple complexes in Egypt!
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