P.B. Shelley – Ozymandias Analysis

Text of  Ozymandias

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.”
P.B. Shelley's Ozymandias
P.B. Shelley’s Ozymandias

P.B. Shelley

P. B. Shelley was a famous English romantic poet, who gained attention for his beautiful lyrical poetry and strongly ideal and radical political thought. Shelley was very generous and supportive of fellow poets and was a major figure in the development of English romantic poetry.

He was strongly influenced by the poems of William Wordsworth also became close to the two great romantic poets – John Keats and Lord Byron. Along with his beautiful lyrical poetry, he also ventured into criticism of politics, being highly critical of the cruelty and injustice of the British establishment.  He was a radical in his poetry as well and that may be a reason as to why Shelley did not see fame during his lifetime. The recognition of his achievements in poetry grew after his death.

The poet was an important member of a close circle of exemplary poets and writers that included Lord Byron, John Keats, Thomas Love Peacock, and his own wife, Mary Shelley. In 1814, when he travelled to London, he met with the philosopher William Godwin and subsequently Mary Godwin, with whom he fell in love with. He is best known for classic poems such as “Ozymandias”, “Ode to the West Wind”, “To a Skylark”, “Music, When Soft Voices Die”, “The Cloud”, and “Masque of Anarchy”.

His politically charged essays such as ‘Philosophical View of Reform’ and poems which dealt with the same subject such as Queen Mab, and the Men of England, inspired radicals and socialists such as Karl Marx and George Bernard Shaw.  Shelley’s life was tragically cut short, when he was caught up in a sudden storm on the Italian coast.

Ozymandias: The Analysis

The poem conjures a meeting between between the narrator and a ‘traveller’ who describes a ruined statue that they saw in the middle of the desert somewhere. The description of the statue is a take on the glass like fragility of human power and on the effects of time on it.

The poem is a sonnet – a fourteen line single stanza form. It is written in iambic pentameter, but there are several variations in the poems.

Ozymandias calls himself  ‘king of kings’ – a phrase taken from biblical language, which hints at an arrogant pride. It could mean that his subsequent obscurity was a punishment from God. The last few lines are extremely memorable, using alliteration. ‘Colossal wreck’ refers to the statue again. Shelley uses the caesura (break of meaning or rhythm within a line) several times in the poem.

The first falls after the second line ‘Who said -‘ mimicking the traveller’s intake of breath before telling the story, dramatising the moment and creating distance between the statue and the poet’s retelling of it. The second caesura comes after ‘stands in the desert…’ reinforces the sense of isolation. The final caesura repeats this, ‘Nothing beside remains’. The short, grammatically incomplete sentence stands in the poem like the statue in the desert.

Ozymandias is the Greek name for the pharaoh Rameses II. The statue is ruined, the legs remain but the body has fallen. The face lies in the sand, ‘half-sunk’ and ‘shattered’, making it hard to recognise. According to the inscription which has survived, the king erected the statue to draw attention to his works – but his own face has not survived. The king’s statue is successful in capturing those passions that the king had, making the works valued, much like his own poem.

The poet uses the first person pronoun “I” to begin his sonnet. Then he switches the focus to a third person deliberately and cleverly; a traveler, whose words form the remaining thirteen lines. This kind of format was very unusual for a sonnet at that time and it reflects Shelley’s innovative thinking.

The reader is listening in to a conversation between two people, he or she has a third person perspective on what is being said in the exchange between a traveller, who has recently returned from a journey through an ancient country and the poet. It is this person who then narrates the story about the huge statue in the sands of the desert, a monument of a great leader which has now lost all its glory.

Shelley has evocative language, which creates some very intense images. From the second line on, the reader is confronted with a vivid picture of the situation with majestic and heavy words such as ‘vast and trunkless’, ‘half sunk’,’shattered visage’ ‘frown and wrinkled lip’ and ‘sneer of cold command’. This heavy description reflects Shelley’s personal thoughts on people who hunger for and have power. Ozymandias is taken to be a commentary on the ephemeral nature of power and it reflects Shelley’s dislike for monarchs and dictators who wield power and are tyrants.

This broken and weathered statue lies in a desolate place that stretches on for miles and miles. Not a lot of people go through the desert, or would desire to. This is a metaphor for the fame that is lost of a once great leader and has been buried in the sands of time.

We can notice the contempt that the poet holds for the arrogance of Ozymandias – ‘for his hand mocked and his greedy heart fed on people’. The inscription on the statue further reinforces the idea that a once powerful king thought highly of himself and build up his ego by declaring he is king of kings. The mightier they are, the heavier they fall seems to be a part of Shelley’s message.

Ozymandias: Further analysis

Ozymandias was written in 1817 by P.B. Shelley, who had some very strong opinions on the political state of Britain and Europe at that time. Ozymandias could have been inspired by the life of Napolean Bonaparte. Bonaparte had invaded Egypt a few years earlier and then fought with the British to hold them off from gaining control of the Nile and its lands. But Napoleon eventually lost the war and was exiled to a distant island, St Helena, where he died in 1821.

Ozymandias stands the test of time for this reason; dictators, tyrants and others who misuse their absolute power will tumble down from the seat of power eventually.

The choice of a sonnet is very unusual for Shelley to use, for is a traditional form for the expression of love. There are three voices, the original “I”, the traveler and the voice of Ozymandias himself in the poem. Shelley has woven the voices into a seamless commentary on the sands of time and the effects of time on arrogance and power.

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