I met a traveler 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.
Simply stated, Shelley was telling us that power does not extend through time, nor does the ego extend through time. The death of the body is simultaneously the death of the ego. Ozymandias, this pompous, self congratulating braggart of a king was mocked by Shelley who deftly sketched the imagery of power being turned to rubble and ultimately, to dust. Time mocks all, especially you, Ozymandias.
To me, this poem feels personal. Shelley was talking to someone, expressing in couched language his contempt for a particular someone. My guess is that Shelley was deeply infuriated with Lord Chancellor Eldon, the magistrate who refused him custody of his first two children.
It should have been no surprise to Shelley that his choices seemed to others to be quite reprehensible, most especially to Eldon, yet this seems to be the case. Is Eldon Ozymandias? Was Shelley striking at this man in the only way he could? Were words his weapons? The poem itself is total mockery, sublimely subtle, deftly and succinctly stated, it drips with disdain.
(Harriet Westbrook , his young wife, had drowned herself in the local river after he had left her and the children to spend some quality time with Mary Wollstonecraft, whom he married, making him briefly a bigamist. Mary later wrote her famous Gothic nightmare, Frankenstein. Shelley wrote much divine poetry before he drowned at age 29, caught by a squall off the north west coast of Italy. Prometheus Unbound is his most acclaimed work.)