Historical Context in Ozymandias
Percy Bysshe Shelley first published “Ozymandias” in 1818. Shelley and his friend, the poet Horace Smith, had challenged themselves to write a poem with the same subject, title, form, and theme. Thus there are two strikingly similar sonnets entitled “Ozymandias,” published just weeks apart in The Examiner. Shelley’s poem takes its title from the Egyptian king Ramesses II, known to the Greeks by the name Ozymandias. In 1817, news broke that archeologists had discovered fragments of a funereal statue of Ramesses II and intended to send the pieces to the British museum. This discovery inspired Shelley’s pen.
As a Romantic poet, Shelley emphasized the incredible power of nature and the frailty of humankind. The message he suggests is that the mighty ought to despair at how utterly forgotten Ozymandias has become. The desert and time have swallowed the vain pride of the ancient king, and the same fate awaits the powerful of today.
Shelley's use of the phrase antique land reflects the Romantics' interest in the ancient and therefore exotic. Since the title of the poem represents the Greek spelling of the name of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II, we know that Shelley is alluding to Egypt as the setting for the traveler’s tale.