When the poem begins, "I met a traveler...," is the reader being invited to identify that "I" with P. Shelley himself? Would that have been the prevailing reading? Did Shelley settle the question elsewhere?

To put it another way, does Shelley's "I" signal performance art in a way that's analogous to stand-up comedy? When e.g. Henny Youngman jokes, "take my wife, please!" we understand that he's almost certainly not sincere about desiring to be rid of his wife, but we do understand that the woman we're being facetiously offered is Mrs Youngman, that the "me" whose wife is at issue is the real man Henny Youngman, that he is not speaking as a fictional character.

Is the narrator of "Ozymandias" similarly supposed to be the very same person as our own Husband-of-Frankenstein's-Author?

1 Answer 1



The narrator of "Ozymandias" is not reducible to the poet. Yes, like a stand-up act, a lyric utterance is performance art. And yes, in "Ozymandias" as in all lyric poetry, the rhetorical claim is that the poet is narrating his own experiences in his own voice. But neither in stand-up comedy nor in the lyric utterance can we say that the narrator "is not speaking as a fictional character." Like Youngman, Shelley represents a fictional speaker as himself. The poet is a historical figure, the speaker his poetic invention; the mimetic relationship between the two is not a matter of biographical correspondence.

So what is meant by asking whether the narrator "supposed to be the very same person" as Shelley himself? By definition, the lyric mode conflates speaker and poet, or narrator and author. But that tells us nothing specific about "Ozymandias" as opposed to any other lyric poem, and we can't derive anything about Shelley's own life from this identification.

Personae and poets: Representation versus reality

The technical term for the speaker of a lyric is persona. Etymologically, the word persona comes from the Latin, where it means a mask worn by an actor to depict a character. A lyric poet adopts a persona to speak through, and this persona is categorically distinct from the poet. Elisabeth Howe elucidates this distinction with regard to Wordsworth's "I wandered lonely as a cloud":

Who says "I" in this poem? The student is tempted to reply "Wordsworth," since he is the author of the poem; but it is dangerous to equate the lyric "I" with the poet's biographical "I." We cannot be sure that Wordsworth himself took that walk and saw that host of daffodils. There is nothing to prevent a poet from conflating events, sensations, or impressions that he experienced on different occasions, from displacing them, or indeed, from inventing them altogether.

Howe, Elisabeth A. The Dramatic Monologue. Twayne's Studies in Literary Themes and Genres 10. Series ed. Ronald Gottesman. New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan, 1996. p. 5. Accessed at archive.org 22 May 2024.

[A]lthough the "I" of such a lyric does not necessarily, or not absolutely, represent the poet himself, it also does not represent anyone else, either—unlike the "I" of "My Last Duchess" or "Ulysses" or other dramatic monologues. A characteristic feature of the lyric "I" is precisely this vagueness that allows the reader to equate it with the poet, perhaps; to identify with it himself, or herself; to see it as a universal "I" belonging to no one and to everyone. Thus the lyric, as Sharon Cameron suggests, "is a departure ... from the finite constrictions of identity," positing a speaker whose "origin remains deliberately unspecified."† The "I" who "wandered lonely as a cloud" can refer to Wordsworth, or to any reader or reciter of the poem.

Howe, p. 6.

†Cameron, Sharon. Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1979. p. 208. Quoted in Howe, p. 6.

As Howe notes, the the lyric utterance is distinct from dramatic monologues such as Browning's "My Last Duchess" or Tennyson's Ulysses, wherein the poet identifies some third person as the speaker of the poem. She also points out that some lyrics, such Byron's "January 22nd, Missalonghi" clearly signal an autobiographical context. Byron's poem is subtitled "On this day I complete my thirty-sixth year," specifying that the speaker is to be identified with the poet. In Wordsworth's poem, however, the identification of speaker with writer, or poetic subject with historical, is unsupported by any relevant evidence provided within or alongside the poem itself.

One can, of course, look for and find such evidence outside of the poem. It has long been known that the basis for Wordsworth's poem is his sister Dorothy's diary entry describing a walk during which they came across a daffodil bank:

When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side, we fancied that the lake had floated the seed ashore and that the little colony had so sprung up – But as we went along there were more & yet more & at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about & about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed & reeled & danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing. This wind blew directly over the Lake to them.

Wordsworth, Dorothy. The Grasmere Journals. 1800–1803. Ed. Pamela Woof. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991. Entry for 15 April 1802. p. 85. Accessed at archive.org 23 May 2024.

Wordsworth's 1804 poem was inspired by his reading this diary entry, so it does in fact have an autobiographical basis. But what immediately strikes the attentive reader is the liberties Wordsworth takes with this incident. The speaker says he was alone when he saw the daffodils: "I wandered lonely." To wonder whether Wordsworth is misremembering, or to accuse him of lying, would be naïve. Rather than assume that a poem makes the same truth claims as reportage, we should recognize that the speaker of the poem is not Wordsworth, but a representation; and that the biographical fact is fictionalized in its poetic recreation.

The same holds for Byron. The autobiographical claims of "January 22nd, Missalonghi" must not be taken too literally. The speaker complains that at 36, he is too old to be sexually enticing, and that his "days are in the yellow leaf / the flowers and fruits of Love are gone." Let's examine this claim by looking at another representation of Byron from around the same time:

Lord Byron, lithograph of 1823 sketch by Alfred d'Orsay

1833 print of 1823 sketch of Lord Byron by Alfred d'Orsay. Original in the British Museum. Accessed 23 May 2024.

Not too shabby. Granted, the sketch too is a fictionalized representation rather than a snapshot. But just as d'Orsay chooses to depict Byron as handsome and attractive, Byron chooses to depict himself as past it to the point of decrepitude. Neither d'Orsay's print nor Byron's poem can be interpreted as showing what Byron was really like in his mid-thirties.

Certainly there are cases where knowing the biographical context for a poem brings out layers of meaning that are otherwise obscured. Take, for example, Vikram Seth's "Unclaimed". A poem that begins with the stark announcement that "To make love with a stranger is the best" and talks of being "unclaimed by fear of imminent day" will be misread until one realizes that Seth wrote this poem while living in San Francisco in the mid-1980s as a bisexual man at the height of the AIDS crisis. The careful lack of specification regarding the lovers' genders, easy to overlook without this context, becomes meaningful within it. So does the phrase "the beat of foreign heart to heart," where Seth's own foreignness as an Indian in the US informs the adjective. It's worth thinking about "heart to heart" as well—two closeted strangers probably can open up to each other in a way that is impossible outside this intimate situation.

Despite all this, though, one cannot make the move of equating the speaker of the poem with Seth. Does Seth himself claim that "To make love to a stranger is the best"? The poem's title suggests otherwise. The most we can say is that a knowledge of the poem's biographical context works as a coming out process for its meaning, disclosing readings that might otherwise remain hidden. We cannot go beyond this to infer, for example, that Seth himself was closeted during this period, or even that he was sexually active. Nor do those particular biographical details matter for the poem.

Seth's poem does not use the first person pronoun at all. The speaker's voice would be almost that of an observer, if not for the longing for intimacy suggested by words like "aching," "fear," and "rest." But even in poems where the voice is autobiographical practically to the point of nakedness, the categorical break between the real poet and the imagined speaker pertains. Take, for example, Silvia Plath's "Daddy." When the speaker says, "Daddy, I have had to kill you," do we assume that Plath murdered her father? And is the last stanza to be taken literally?

There's a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing, and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through.

Plath is considered the arch-representative of confessional poetry, and yet it's clear that this poem is not meant literally. Plath is speaking metaphorically throughout. The identification of the poet with the speaker is similarly metaphorical: some knowledge of the poet's biography and personality allows us to see certain meanings in the poem in the same way that saying "a camel is the ship of the desert" allows us to see certain aspects of the camel. But it's important to distinguish tenor from vehicle here. The camel is the tenor, the ship the vehicle; the poem is the tenor, the biographical details the vehicle. If we think that "Daddy" tells us something about Plath's life, or "Unclaimed" something about Seth's, we're getting things backward—it's the other way round.

The point of the above readings is to show that no matter how close the identification between speaker and poet, the poem is a performance relying on a persona. This persona is fictional. It is not meant to be a literal or biographical depiction of the poet. Even when biographical signposts are available (as they are in varying degrees for all four poets, Wordsworth, Byron, Seth, and Plath), those markers tell us about the lyrical utterance or the poetic performance—i.e., about the poem, not the poet.

The composition of "Ozymandias"

Let's bring this back to Shelley. The statue described in the sonnet is one of the two colossi that flanked the mortuary temple of the pharoah Rameses II, known to the ancient Greeks as Ozymandius, in the Theban necropolis. When Shelley's poem was written, one of the pair, known as the Younger Memnon, was en route to London after having been looted from its original location. (As the joke goes: "Why are the pyramids in Egypt? They were too big to ship to the British Museum.") The statue arrived in March 1818, two months after Shelley's sonnet was published. And since Shelley never went to Egypt, he could not have seen the statue or its pair in situ either.

The poem's opening lines make clear that the speaker has not himself seen the statue. Rather, he is narrating what a "traveler" has described to him. But who is this traveler? A conflation of speaker and poet would lead us to inquire whether Shelley could have heard about the statues from somebody who had been to Egypt. But nothing in the historical record backs this up. It's far more likely that this encounter is fictional, and that Shelley had read about the statue. Johnstone Parr suggests several books of travel writing that might have been his source:

Some years ago Mr. Thompson examined the works of several eighteenth- and nineteenth-century traveler-historians (Pococke, Norden, Savary, Denon, Hamilton, Belzoni, and the French Commission) with the idea of discovering Shelley's source, deciding finally upon Savary. A year later, Mr. Pettit suggested the work of M. Dominique-Vivant Denon.

Parr, Johnstone. "Shelley’s 'Ozymandias.'" Keats-Shelley Journal, vol. 6, 1957, pp. 31–35. Quote is on p. 33. Accessed at JSTOR, 24 May 2024.

All of these contemporary travel writers would have seen only fragments of the statues at the Ramesseum. But Shelley's ur-source describes them intact. This original source is the ancient Greek historian Diodorus of Sicily, who wrote in the first century BCE. Diodorus is paraphrasing an earlier historian, Hecataeus of Abdera, from the early third century BCE, whose work is now lost:

At the entrance stand three statues, each of one entire stone, the workmanship of Memnon of Sienitas. One of these, made in a sitting posture, is the greatest in all Egypt, the measure of his foot exceeding seven cubits; the other two, much less than the former, reaching but to his knees; the one standing on the right, and the other on the left, being his daughter and mother. This piece is not only commendable for its greatness, but admirable for its cut and workmanship, and the excellency of the stone. In so great a work there is not to be discerned the least flaw, or any other blemish.

Upon it there is this inscription: "I am Osymandyas, king of kings; if any would know how great I am, and where I lie, let him excel me in any of my works."

Diodorus Sicilus. The Historical Library of Diodorus the Sicilian. 60 BCE–30 BCE. Trans. G. Booth, 1700. London: Military Chronicle Office, 1814. 2 vols. Vol 1: book I, ch. 4, p. 53. Accessed at archive.org 23 May 2024.

Since the actual statues of Rameses lack any surviving inscriptions, we can deduce that Shelley's lines recounting the inscription derive from Diodorus:

"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

He may have read Diodorus in the original Greek, or in translation, or as quoted by one of the travel writers Parr mentions. But the presence of this inscription in the poem demonstrates that Shelley's account is literary rather than literal—that the fragments that compose his statue are textual rather than lithic.

The poem first appeared in the 11 January 1818 edition of The Examiner, a weekly founded by Leigh Hunt. Shelley chose the pseudonym "Gilrastes." Three weeks later, another sonnet on the same subject written by Shelley's friend Horace Smith was printed in the 1 February issue. Accompanying Smith's sonnet was a note to the editor:

Sir,—The subject which suggested the beautiful Sonnet, in a late number, signed "Gilrastes," produced also the enclosed from another pen, which, if you deem it worthy insertion, is at your service.

We know from Mary Shelley's journal that Smith had paid Percy and Mary Shelley a brief visit on 26–28th December. The proximity of this visit to the publication of both poems has led critics to speculate that the poems were written in friendly competition, where Smith and Shelley each tried their hand at a sonnet on the theme of Diodorus's description of the statue. It is known that Shelley's circle indulged in such competitions. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the sonnets on the Nile by Percy Shelley, Keats, and Hunt all resulted from similar challenges. The imminent arrival of the Younger Memnon in London was the spur for the Nile poems, and perhaps underwrites Smith's and Shelley's "Ozymandias" sonnets as well. All of this lends credence to the speculation that the latter sonnets were the result of a similar competition, and the speculation is often treated as fact. Here, for example, is John Rodenbeck:

The great sonnet was published on 11 January 1818. It had apparently been written barely two weeks earlier. The occasion of its composition is now well known. At his house near Marlowe [sic] on Saturday 27 December 1817, the day after Boxing Day, Shelley entertained Horace Smith (1779–1849), whom he had met at Leigh Hunt's the previous year. Smith was equally talented as a financier, a verse parodist, and an author of historical novels. The talk seems to have drifted around to Egyptian antiquity and to Diodorus Siculus ... and a friendly competition ensued in which each writer was to produce a sonnet on the subject of "Ozymandias, the King of Kings."

Rodenbeck, John. “Travelers from an Antique Land: Shelley’s Inspiration for ‘Ozymandias’”. Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, no. 24, 2004, pp. 121–48. Accessed at JSTOR, 24 May 2024.

It's worth noting, however, that neither Mary Shelley's journal nor Smith's lengthy account of his visit mentions any such competition. As Rodenbeck mentions, Smith was a gifted parodist, which suggests that he was able to come up with responses to existing poems quickly and skillfully. It's equally plausible that Smith read Shelley's sonnet and produced one on the same theme, as that both poems were composed simultaneously in a friendly match.

With no actual evidence that a competition was ever undertaken, it's pretty remarkable that critic after critic has presented the competition as established fact. This reveals, once again, the unreliability of using poems as evidence for incidents in the poet's life. Going from the two Ozymandias poems to any sort of biographical conclusion about the poets leads into hazard. And remarkably fruitless hazard, at that. The existence or non- of such a competition probably doesn't add to our understanding of Shelley's poem either way.

Contrariwise, what if we assume that the poem is autobiographical, that Shelley is faithfully reporting an actual conversation with someone returned from Egypt. Would we understand "Ozymandias" differently? Here too I'd venture probably not. Of the various possibilities we have been entertaining about the poem's composition, the theory that Shelley is imaginatively combining fragments from his reading comes closest to helping our understanding. If we could confidently identify Shelley's proximate sources for the poem, perhaps we could say whether the "traveler from an antique land" is Diodorus, or one of the other writers of Egyptian travelogues Shelley read.

The work of the lyric persona

As we've seen, we can't go from work to life and read Shelley's biography from "Ozymandias." That's begging the question: a fictional representation isn't reliable evidence for a factual claim. The reverse move is defensible, because we've seen that going from life to work while examining the lyric persona can be useful in some cases (Seth, for example). But "Ozymandias" is resistant to this approach. Based on what we do know about Shelley—namely, that he'd never been to Egypt and had never seen any statue of Rameses II—it's hard to read in this poem the light of his personal experiences. So here, a biographical reading seems like a dead-end.

A different approach would be to ask what the "I" is doing in the poem. Why does Shelley have that speaker at all? What would have happened if Shelley, like Seth, had eschewed the first person pronoun—if the poem were solely a description of the statue? Furthermore, the speaker tells us what someone else told him, not even something he saw first-hand. Why is the story told second-hand? What does this choice add: verisimilitude? Plausible deniability? Ironic distancing? Something else? Perhaps it's a sly acknowledgement of Shelley's lack of direct knowledge of Egypt? A reminder that Diodorus, too, is paraphrasing an earlier writer?

These are questions about how the poetic voice of "Ozymandias" works. In this context, if we learn that some traveler really told Shelley about the statue, and Shelley is simply recreating an actual biographical fact, that might indeed be trivially useful as a factoid. However, the questions about the effects of this second-hand framing would remain. The framing is a poetic choice Shelley made, after all. Even if someone had described the statue to him, he was not constrained to frame the poem the way he does. So what does this choice achieve?

I don't know the answer to these questions, but they are questions that engage with the question of lyric persona in ways that go beyond the identification, basic to the lyric mode, of poet and speaker. "Ozymandias" is not as far as we know relatable to any specific incident in Shelley's life, and it seems unlikely that biographical facts about Shelley's life would illuminate the poem. But that does not foreclose questions about how the lyric persona works in this sonnet.


All of this is to argue that the distinction you very correctly make between Youngman's actual wife and her fictional representation applies just as well to Youngman onstage and Youngman offstage, and by extension to the "I" of Ozymandias and the groom of Frankenstein. It's not advisable to draw conclusions about Youngman's offstage [lw]ife, or Shelley's, from the onstage representations thereof. It bears mention that Hassan Minhaj's recent woes are largely the result of such a confusion of categories, promulgated by people who should know better.

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    Of course, we know the actual inspiration for Ozymandias was the passage in Diodorus Siculus's Bibliotheca historica that Shelley and Smith used for their competition, so the literal truth of "I met a traveller from an antique land" would be "I read of a traveller from an antique land", but as you say that doesn't affect the reading of the poem.
    – Showsni
    Commented May 23 at 21:05
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    @Showsni I don't think there's good evidence for the alleged competition, which is why I didn't mention it originally. But alas, your comment forced me to reckon with it. I've revised the answer (at great length!) to make the argument that no such competition occurred. Hope it helps!
    – verbose
    Commented May 24 at 9:02
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    Not only is this answer utterly fascinating, you've sussed out my ulterior motive: I have been trying to figure out why the poem has the thin frame. It's a short poem, yet shifts between 3 voices: narrator, traveler, and Ozymandias. Many thanks!
    – Tom
    Commented Jun 1 at 2:53
  • Thanks for the kind words! I'm glad you like the answer; I often wonder whether my overlong digressions serve any purpose. (The first and last sections by themselves would have been a complete answer.) Your observation that the poem has three voices is very astute. You could ask a follow-up question about the frame? If you decide to do so, please tag it "interpretation", which is what we use for open-ended questions about a work's meaning
    – verbose
    Commented Jun 1 at 4:24

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