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Percy Bysshe Shelley's Ozymandias is a well-known and oft-referenced English-language poem from the early 19th century, and purports to quote — presumably in translation from Egyptian hieroglyphs — a line from the pedestal of a statue of Ramesses II (c. 1303–1213 BCE):

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

I don't believe that the "y" in ye is the digraph thorn as in "Ye Old Curiosity Shop", because I think such practice was not common by the beginning of the 19th century. Further I suspect "y" as "th" was limited to typeset print, while a fair copy of Shelley's own (handwritten) manuscript attests to his use of "ye":

The line 'Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!' in Shelley's manuscript

Thus I'm lead to believe that Shelley really intended to have the "ye" in "ye Mighty" correspond to the second-person pronoun as in "you Mighty", much as Herrick had earlier charged the virgins to "Gather you rosebuds while you may".

In Shelley's poem this is "ye Mighty" line is chilling and continues the tension created a couple of lines earlier; this tension is only released by the ending of the poem.

But reading this line as "Look on my works, you Mighty, and despair!" seems a bit confusing - who would Ozymandias/Ramesses be addressing? Kings of other lands? His minions or other supplicants? Why does Shelley have Ozymandias promote those who in his eyes were subject to his own dominion by calling them "Mighty", only to instruct them otherwise to fear and despair his lordship?

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    Ye--with the actual letter "y," not as a substitute for a thorn--was historically a second-person pronoun. It was originally used exclusively for the nominative plural, as it is here.
    – alphabet
    Jan 8, 2023 at 17:52
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    The answers seem to be taking this as one of three distinct questions: 1) Is it really “ye”, not “the”-with-y-for-thorn? 2) What is the literal meaning of “ye” here? 3) Whom does Shelley (in Ozymandias’ voice) call “ye mighty” and why? It seems clear to me that #3 is what’s actually being asked (with a side serving of “please check my assumptions about ye = youthe”), but I could be wrong, and the title certainly lends itself to #2. Jan 9, 2023 at 4:28
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    Because it sounds better
    – minseong
    Jan 9, 2023 at 13:34
  • @theonlygusti thanks for your comment. I’m generally sympathetic to granting authors and poets a broad license to use the entire spectrum of their chosen language, and I agree that that was Shelley’s motivation. But that doesn’t stop me from trying to deconstruct these words. Indeed, given the many thoughtful and well-researched answers, I don’t think it’s a fool’s game to play.
    – Mark S
    Jan 9, 2023 at 14:11

6 Answers 6

54

"Look on my works ye mighty and despair."

First point: you are correct, the ye is equivalent to you.

Second point: the reason he uses ye instead of you is because it is supposedly an ancient inscription, and ye sounds like old-time language, rather than coming from Shelley's own time.

Third point: the inscription has an ironic double meaning.

When the king was alive, he thought the words meant "If you think you are mighty, just look at me, I am greater than you are. Despair, because you will never be as great as me."

But his empire collapsed and left nothing but a broken statue. To modern people the inscription means, "If you think you are mighty, look at me, I vanished from history, and so will you. Despair, because you, too, shall be forgotten."

By the way, the poem was inspired by two actual statues, one of them a broken head and torso in Egypt, and an inscription on a different statue. The original inscription, in translation, was: "King of Kings Ozymandias am I. If any want to know how great I am and where I lie, let him outdo me in my work."

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    I think this answer could better explain that "ye" as a pronoun is actually a real thing that has just fallen out of use, not like "ye" = "the" which was a misunderstanding and never correct. (The SCOTUS is still saying "hear ye, hear ye".) Jan 9, 2023 at 15:00
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    @user3067860 I don’t think that’s a flaw in this answer, as it isn’t (to my reading) what the question is actually about. And on another note, I had read that in the Supreme Court they actually say “oyez”, which is the same thing, except in Law French! Jan 9, 2023 at 16:00
  • @TimPederick From my reading of the question, the OP is not sure if this is a correct usage at all, so the answer should answer that part--it doesn't just "sound like" old-time language, it actually is legit old-time language. (Also, oops--yeah, SCOTUS does use the French version--but some state courts actually say "hear ye" in English.) Jan 9, 2023 at 18:21
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    I love the "double meaning", which is something I'd never thought of before. Jan 11, 2023 at 10:47
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My impression is that "ye noun" was regularly used as a vocative (i.e., a direct address) in English in the 19th century. See Google Ngrams. (Although you shouldn't entirely trust this Ngram because in a small fraction of the hits, ye is short for the, but in most of the rest, it's a vocative.)

Here, by ye mighty, Ozymandias is directly addressing the mighty; in contemporary English, it would probably be phrased you mighty.

And this line takes on a double meaning. When the statue was erected, it was undoubtedly next to some great monuments which Ozymandias was bragging about, and the meaning was "no matter how mighty you are, you will never match my great works." However, all that's left today is the plinth, two legs and a detached head. The poem can be read as saying that everything is ephemeral — no matter how mighty you are, your works will inexorably be destroyed by time.

An early example of the distinction between the nominative you and the vocative ye can be found in Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, written in 1750, in the line

Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault:

And there are lyrics, written fairly recently, for Blow the Man Down that show that this distinction still exists to some degree:

All ye sailors take warning before you set sail,
Way ! Hey ! Blow the man down !

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    "My impression is that "ye noun" was regularly used as a vocative ..." For another famous example, see "Yet once more, O ye laurels, ..." from Milton's Lycidas.
    – Tsundoku
    Jan 8, 2023 at 21:59
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    @Tusndoku: Milton is probably long enough ago that non-vocative ye was still common. But consider the Charles Hope Kerr translation of The Internationale (1900): "Arise, ye prisoners of starvation! Arise, ye wretched of the earth! For justice thunders condemnation, A better world is in birth! No more tradition's chains shall bind us, Arise ye slaves, no more in thrall!"
    – Peter Shor
    Jan 8, 2023 at 22:45
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    Or for another example (from 1885): So blow ye winds, heigh-ho, // A-roving I will go, // I’ll stay no more on England’s shore, // so let the music play-ay-ay, Should I add these to my answer?
    – Peter Shor
    Jan 9, 2023 at 0:37
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    Then there is the common idiom "ye gods!".
    – user14111
    Jan 9, 2023 at 1:58
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    @user14111 These days, often followed by "My roast is ruined!" Jan 9, 2023 at 7:18
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Ye is/was the nominative second person plural pronoun. Its current use is chiefly dialect, ceremonial, historical and religious.

The religious and historical aspect are at play here as a literary device: Ramses II was a king and god. Kings and gods speak like that - we only have to consider religious language today that often seems to think that God speaks some form of 17th century English :) Gods and kings declaim things - the use of "ye" give an air of great confidence, power, and authority.

Ozymandias’ words are bursting with hubris: He is sneering in contempt at other, contemporary, kings and rulers (or anyone else who might read the words written in stone so as to last an eternity) who might try to claim that they are “mighty” when all they need do (according to him) is look around to see his power and wealth and all that he has done, which (according to him) renders their efforts and success as nothing.

This, of course, contrasts starkly with what is, in fact, currently around him, and reminds the reader that all wealth and power are transient.

Thus I'm lead to believe that Shelley really meant to have "ye mighty" be read as "you mighty",

One does not correct great poets and writers, particularly when they have used the full resources of the language to great and brilliant effect.

"Look upon my works, you mighty, and despair!" seems a bit confusing

Mighty is an adjective used as a noun

Read it as "Look upon my works, ye who are mighty, and despair!"

or "Ye who are mighty look upon my works and despair!"

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    Thanks - so Shelley has Ozymandias display snarling contempt for those to whom he wants to impress, but then also has him refer to them as "mighty?" Perhaps as if Ozymandias is saying "you may think you are high and mighty, but as high as you think you are, bow to me because I am the king of kings!"
    – Mark S
    Jan 8, 2023 at 18:02
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    @MarkS - precisely. It doesn't matter how powerful you are - look at me and realise you are not fit to kiss my feet."
    – Greybeard
    Jan 8, 2023 at 18:06
  • To strengthen the impression of "snarling contempt" (to quote Mark S) you could cite the words "sneer of cold command" from line 5.
    – Tsundoku
    Jan 8, 2023 at 18:15
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    @Greybeard If you added these ideas from comments to your answer, I'd upvote it. Currently, the answer doesn't really address why readers would have been addressed as "mighty" and why that doesn't suggest the speaker humbling themselves, which is part of what the question is asking.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jan 9, 2023 at 6:21
  • @Randal'Thor well, to be fair I did slightly edit my question for more emphasis on this point after Greybeard answered. His comment helped me work out my wording.
    – Mark S
    Jan 9, 2023 at 12:29
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This is a second-person plural pronoun, already obsolete by Shelley’s time. He uses it because it’s supposed to be an old inscription (and most modern English readers are unfamiliar with any form of English earlier than Queen Elizabeth I). A second-person plural subject in formal early modern English was ye, a second-person plural object was you, a second-person singular subject was thou, and a second-person singular object was thee.

An example using all four is the King James translation of Leviticus 25:

And thou shalt number seven sabbaths of years unto thee, seven times seven years; and the space of the seven sabbaths of years shall be unto thee forty and nine years.

And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubile unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.

Another example in the vocative, like in the poem, is Matthew 16:3,

O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?

Whereas a very similar verse, Luke 12:56, drops the O:

Ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky and of the earth; but how is it that ye do not discern this time?

This is exactly how Shelley is using it, too. Ozymandias is posthumously addressing all the mighty people.

A more conversational example of this is in Shakespeare’s sonnets, where he uses ye to address two people (the “loving offenders”) but thou to address a single person (“Thou dost love her.”)

Loving offenders thus I will excuse ye,
Thou dost love her, because thou know’st I love her,

However, Shakespeare more commonly uses ye and you as a polite substitute for thou and thee, by analogy to French vous. Eventually, everyone used the polite form for everyone else, even close friends and family. Also note the casual use of ye as a direct object. It was you as a subject that won out instead in modern English. Ye only survives in a few fixed expressions, such as “Fare ye well.” And that’s how, today, someone can ask what ye even means.

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My totally uneducated and subjective answer regarding whom (Shelley) Ozymandias is addressing would be that he (Ozymandias) is addressing all the powerful men (and women?) that he knows inevitably will come after he has "passed". And he is in essence saying, "You might think You are mighty when You look at what You have and have accomplished, but look back at what I accomplished and cower in the comparison."

I know this answer breaks "Stack Exchange rules" but I fail to see that there is an answer to the interpretation of poetry that isn't ultimately based in subjective interpretation and opinion.

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    Why do you think it breaks the rules? Which rules?
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    Jan 10, 2023 at 17:28
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    The Code is more what you'd call guidelines than actual rules... Welcome aboard the Literature Stack Exchange, CuriousNovice!
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    Jan 11, 2023 at 18:42
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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.”

It's a challenge at least to the surrounding emperors, past and present.

But the use of the capital M in Mighty may suggest an address to the gods also. I do not mean those emperors who declared themselves gods, e.g. Caesar, but rather the accepted gods of the time, Isis, Osiris and so on.

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  • +1 for the interesting thought about the capitalization of Mighty, which is certainly attested to in the manuscript (but certainly not in the source pedestal, written in hieroglyphs). A bronze-age Pharaoh equating himself to, or considering himself above, a god?
    – Mark S
    Jan 10, 2023 at 23:12
  • And a touch of irony in the capital W of colossal Wreck in the second last line ?
    – Trunk
    Jan 11, 2023 at 12:14

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