Words Wednesday: Percy Bysshe Shelley

Happy Words Wednesday! Today we’re looking at one of the most famous works by English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Percy Bysshe Shelley quote from Ozymandias

We recently wrote a brief biography of Mary Shelley, the young author of Frankenstein, and thought we’d continue our exploration of the famous Shelleys with some poignant words from her husband. This Percy Bysshe Shelley quote comes from his 1818 sonnet, “Ozymandias.”

Ozymandias was the Greek name for the Egyptian Pharoah Ramesses II, whose statue had been recently acquired by the British Museum. Shelley wrote “Ozymandias” during a friendly competition with friend and fellow poet Horace Smith. Smith’s poem uses the same title with a more traditional rhyme scheme, but it’s Shelley’s poem that continues to captivate audiences today.

Though short, Shelley’s sonnet is a powerful reflection on the inevitable decline of manmade works and of humanity’s tendency toward false pretensions of enduring greatness.

Percy Bysshe Shelley quote

If you haven’t read “Ozymandias,” here’s the brief sonnet in full:

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.”

“Ozymandias” and Breaking Bad

“Ozymandias” gained fame in the last few years for being the title of an episode of Breaking Bad, the critically acclaimed American drama series. This episode received wide critical acclaim, and the connection to Shelley’s poem is made clear as Walter White’s drug empire continues to crumble in a fantastic and tragic manner.

Listen to Bryan Cranston, the actor who played main character Walt, read “Ozymandias” in a trailer for the shower:

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