"Ozymandias" is a fourteen-line, iambic pentameter sonnet. It is not a traditional one, however. Although it is neither a Petrarchan sonnet nor a Shakespearean sonnet, the rhyming scheme and style resemble a Petrarchan sonnet more, particularly with its 8-6 structure rather than 4-4-4-2.
Here we have a speaker learning from a traveler about a giant, ruined statue that lay broken and eroded in the desert. The title of the poem informs the reader that the subject is the 13th-century B.C. Egyptian King Ramses II, whom the Greeks called “Ozymandias.” The traveler describes the great work of the sculptor, who was able to capture the king’s “passions” and give meaningful expression to the stone, an otherwise “lifeless thing.” The “mocking hand” in line 8 is that of the sculptor, who had the artistic ability to “mock” (that is, both imitate and deride) the passions of the king. The “heart” is first of all the king’s, which “fed” the sculptor’s passions, and in turn the sculptor’s, sympathetically recapturing the king’s passions in the stone.
The final five lines mock the inscription hammered into the pedestal of the statue. The original inscription read “I am Ozymandias, King of Kings; if anyone wishes to know what I am and where I lie, let him surpass me in some of my exploits.” The idea was that he was too powerful for even the common king to relate to him; even a mighty king should despair at matching his power. That principle may well remain valid, but it is undercut by the plain fact that even an empire is a human creation that will one day pass away. The statue and surrounding desert constitute a metaphor for invented power in the face of natural power. By Shelley’s time, nothing remains but a shattered bust, eroded “visage,” and “trunkless legs” surrounded with “nothing” but “level sands” that “stretch far away.” Shelley thus points out human mortality and the fate of artificial things.
The lesson is important in Europe: France’s hegemony has ended, and England’s will end sooner or later. Everything about the king’s “exploits” is now gone, and all that remains of the dominating civilization are shattered “stones” alone in the desert. Note the use of alliteration to emphasize the point: “boundless and bare”; “lone and level.”
It is important to keep in mind the point of view of “Ozymandias.” The perspective on the statue is coming from an unknown traveler who is telling the speaker about the scene. This helps create a sense of the mystery of history and legend: we are getting the story from a poet who heard it from a traveler…