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  • Writer's pictureLilah Lyons

The Prideful King: A Commentary on “Ozymandias”

It is true that time stops for no man. Still, humans strive and claw at the idea of undying greatness, an idea as unattainable as bottling the stars. “Ozymandias”  by Percy Bysshe Shelley explores the insignificance of humanity through the irony of a prideful king, and shows how even the mightiest of the human race are still overcome by time.

Shelley paints the picture of how time does not care about the pride of mankind. In the poem, the narrator meets a man who has traveled through a vast desert. The traveler describes seeing a once mighty statue of a king standing alone in the wasteland. The statue’s face shows the grave power and pride of this king. And, inscribed in the stone are the words “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” (Shelley, 1977).

The irony in the imagery is unmistakable. Nothing from Ozymandias’ empire is left. Time has done its work, and even the monument cracks and lies “half shattered” in the sand (Shelley, 1977). Time does not care about this king. His words, however, do ring true as even more irony comes into play. One does look upon Ozymandias’s works, or the absence of them, and despair. Even a great, stern king like Ozymandias could not make his legacy last forever, though he tried with all his might. What the poem is indirectly saying is “look upon the impermanence of man and despair!”

The rhyme pattern in “Ozymandias” also adds to the theme of man’s impermince. Following an a, b, a, c, a, rhyme scheme, which is repeated in the first nine verses, the poem then takes a sudden turn after verse ten, after which it follows an a, b, a, b, pattern. Interestingly enough, the only line that does not rhyme in the entire poem is line ten, when Ozymandias declares himself to be the “King of Kings” (Shelley, 1977). 

The first nine lines of the poem’s rhyme emulate the sweeping of the wind over the sand, tying into the traveler’s description of the desert’s “lone and level sands” (Shelley, 1977). The poem’s pattern is uninterrupted until Ozymandias’ declaration, then continues in a more regular pattern until its end. The last four lines of rhyme almost sound like a clock’s ticking, signifying time erasing Ozymandias’ work. It is as if the king’s pride filled words are only a shout in the dark, an outcry lost in the wind. Sand covers his once great empire, and time now ticks away as his deeds crumble. As the poem closes, Shelley leaves the reader with only an echo in the desert wasteland. The king has fallen, only a faint memory of his pride is left, “nothing besides remains” (Shelley, 1977).

As King Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes “a generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever…There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after” (ESV Study Bible, Ecc. 1.10-11). Mankind’s pride is all in vain. Humans strive to make themselves great but all will be brought low. It is entirely possible that the great men and women known today will be forgotten. Leaving future generations completely ignorant to the works of Shakespere, the conquest of Alexander the Great, and the poetry of Homer.

A third layer of irony lies in “Ozymandias.” Though Ozymandias claims to be the greatest king who has ever lived, he does not deserve that title. There was another who claimed the title “King of Kings.” He did not pride Himself in personal gain, or in making Himself great. Instead, He emptied Himself for others (ESV Study Bible, Phil. 2.6-8) and had no monument but a cross. Jesus’s kingdom shall have no end, unlike the proud earthly king’s (ESV Study Bible, Luke 1.33). As the Psalmist writes in chapter 16, “pride comes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. It is better to be of a humble spirit with the lowly, than to divide the spoil with the proud” (ESV Study Bible, 16.18-19). Only one thing will remain eternal, and that is Jesus Christ. It is better to cling to Him than attempt to preserve a fleeting sense of importance. 

The poem “Ozymandias”  by Percy Bysshe Shelley is a testament to the impermanence of mankind. Through the use of rhyme, imagery, and irony, it displays the relics of a once great king, now laying forgotten in the desert. Time stops for no man, and pride is all in vain. True greatness is found only in Jesus, not in earthly power which crumbles into dust. 

Works Cited

ESV Study Bible. Crossway Books, 2008.

Shelley, B. (1977). Ozymandias. Poetry Foundation. Retrieved November 29, 2023, from

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Edmund Goforth
Edmund Goforth
Jan 30

Really excellent writing, very engaging, I loved it.

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