Shelley’s “Ozymandias”

The past few weeks have been mostly just reading, from historical texts and documents to poems and literature, and making connections between them. The first of these came in the shower, the best place I find for coming up with ideas. I wasn’t even thinking of my project, when out of nowhere I realized the significance of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias.” During the first half of the nineteenth century, the British Museum believed that the only high art of ancient times was the work of the Greeks and Romans. Anything from the near East or Egypt was simply considered a historical artifact, and had no artistic value or merit. Shelley’s poem works to change that. He takes the carving of the pharaoh Ramesses II in the British Museum, and turns it into a piece of art, through the art of his verse. In this way, the poem becomes a reactionary and revolutionary piece against the older, conservative policies of the British Museum, which fits in nicely with Shelley’s own political beliefs.

Now this is by no means the definitive end of my work with the poem. However, I wanted to share this one insight and make it concrete so in the future I can return to it and understand what exactly I was thinking at this moment. Cheers.



  1. Hi Rory! You make a really interesting point about “Ozymandias,” and it’d be really interesting to see how you could develop or support it further.
    Your other point, about Western views towards Art vs. Artifact, is relevant in other fields as well. There was a similar shift in European collections of Japanese goods, which morphed from historical or anthropological novelties to legitimate objets d’art by the end of the 19th century. It’s generally attributed to Japan’s becoming more commercially open during that time period, so maybe there’s some kind of parallel there, with ancient Egypt becoming a source for art as its material culture (or aesthetics, perhaps) begins to enter the mainstream British market.