Knowing Shelley and the other second generation poets were influenced by events such as the Battle of Waterloo, I think it is interesting to look at Ozymandias as if it were a political commentary. After Waterloo, European citizens returned to being ruled predominately by kings and the church. Ideas of liberty and revolution were less accepted, and the monarchy was in chaos led by a crazed king and an extravagant prince regent.
Ozymandias is thought to be the pharaoh Moses challenged in the Bible. Much like Moses challenged the power and legitimacy of Ozymandias, the traveler’s story challenges the power of the pharaoh’s statue. Shelley writes, “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, / Tell that its sculptor well those passions read / Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things” (lines 1-7). The traveler’s words lack reverence for the dead king but heap respect on the sculptor’s skill. It is interesting that in the time of Ozymandias, the pharaoh’s temperament was highly visible to those around him. His sneering character and personality flaws were prominent in his day and are how he is remembered in ours. The suggestion that Ozymandias’ personality flaws “yet survive” could also be a commentary on the personalities of the monarchs in Shelley’s day. Oddly, while the poem shows the legacy Ozymandias’ personality left across history, the poem also seems to suggest this legacy may end. The traveler seems to suggest the statue is in a transitional phase—much as the European governments were in Shelley’s day.
For the traveler, all that remains of the power of Ozymandias is two legs, part of a face, and a pedestal reading “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” (lines 10-11). In the days in which Ozymandias lived, his monuments and buildings would have symbolized his power and command over his people. People may have felt despair at the realization they would never equal his power. Now, seeing all of that power broken down and erased by nature and time, the word despair has entirely different connotations. As if the pharaoh’s current state were not bad enough, the traveler suggests Ozymandias’ downfall is not yet complete. He notes, “Round the decay / Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare, / The lone and level sands stretch far away” (lines 12-15). Around the fallen statue, the sands are level. The sands are not roughly covering the pharaoh’s legacy. They have smoothed over the rest of his once great empire. This image subtly suggests changes will continue. Eventually, Ozymandias will not even be a blot on the horizon. Time will have erased him from sight and the last remnants of his power will be gone.
Based on the history and the political events of Shelley’s day, this poem seems to suggest that all of the power and flaws of the monarchies will one day be erased. To me, the poem suggests the view that although progress and public perspectives remain mixed at the time the poem is written, the future will embrace the views of liberty and equality among men. The days of kings and pharaohs are ending, and the traveler brings a message of defeat for the kings and hope for Europe’s future.