Shelley lived at a time when there was enormous interest in the archaeology of the Ancient Near East, following Napoleon’s victories in Egypt. Archaeological finds were being brought back to British and European museums, fuelling the creative imaginations of writers and stimulating a most fashionable interest in ancient history.
‘Ozymandias’ was inspired by a fallen statue of the Egyptian pharaoh Rameses II, who is believed by many to be the arrogant pharaoh of Exodus in the Bible. It should be noted, though, that this is not the same statue that Shelley writes about.
There isn’t any archaeological evidence for the existence of the statue Shelley describes in this poem, which instead seems to be based on a statue and inscription described by the 1st century Greek historian Diodorus Siculus- but that isn’t the point: the poem is about the fact that the statue created in honour of one so powerful and wealthy ended up broken down and surrounded by nothing but endless desert.
Shelley’s message is clear: whatever we build for ourselves in this life does not last, and people may not actually remember us for the things we’d like them to remember.
This short poem presents some powerful contrasts: vanity and ruin, honour and despair, sculpture and degradation, commemoration and mockery.
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,
Tell 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 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.”
If you’d like to know more about the relationship between Shelley’s poem and the history of Ozymandias, you can read this article by Stephen Hebron that provides a detailed explanation in plain English.