Analysis of Poem "Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley and Ozymandias
Ozymandias is a fourteen line sonnet written in 1817 by a British Romantic poet whose name is synonymous with radical social and political change.
Percy Bysshe Shelley lived a chaotic, nomadic life but managed to produce poetry and pamphlets for most of his adult years. He eventually married Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the daughter of philosopher William Godwin, and eloped with her to Europe, living in a circle of artistic friends and lovers which included for a time Lord Byron.
It was during this time that Shelley died at the age of 29 when his boat sank in a storm in the Gulf of Spezia, Italy. Atheist, pacifist and vegetarian, he was mourned by his close friends but back in England he was seen as an agitator.
His wide ranging poetry lives on. A sensitive nature poet, he wrote the oft quoted To a Skylark and The Flower That Smiles Today but he could pen political verse too, notably England in 1819.
Ozymandias is a political poem at heart, written at a time when Napoleon's domination of Europe was coming to an end and another empire, that of Great Britain's, was about to take over.
Shelley's poem encapsulates metaphorically the outcome of such tyrannical wielding of power - no leader, King, despot, dictator or ruler can overcome time. Overall, this sonnet paints a picture of an egotistical character who thought himself without rival but who was cruel to his people.
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.”
Analysis of Ozymandias
Shelley's sonnet is a bit of a twist on the traditional form. It does have 14 lines and is mostly iambic pentameter, but the rhyme scheme is different, being ababacdcedefef which reflects an unorthodox approach to the subject.
It's not a Shakespearean sonnet, nor is it a Petrarchan - the poet made certain of its individuality by choosing not to introduce a 'turn' after the second quatrain. Instead there is a simple shift of emphasis, the narrator sharing the words on the pedestal that are in effect, the words of the fallen leader.
Is this Shelley yet again breaking with tradition, defying the establishment?
The occasional use of alliteration reinforces certain words, helping the reader to focus:
legs of stone/Stand (lines 2-3)
sneer of cold command, (line 5)
boundless and bare (line 13)
The lone and level sands stretch (line 14)
The full rhymes and slant rhymes of the short vowel a are also an important factor in the overall sound of this sonnet. Take a note of their prevalence:
What this does is produce a harsh almost cutting edge to some lines which is offset by the regular use of punctuation, causing the reader to pause. For example, in lines 3-5 :
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,
So whilst the regular rhythm persists, the pauses, punctuation and enjambment help vary the pace and bring interest for the reader and listener. The mysterious ending adds to the atmosphere - all that history, the works, the dreams of a people, the fall of a once great empire.
Shelley uses the first person pronoun "I" to begin his sonnet then cleverly switches the focus to a third person, a traveler, whose words are contained in the remaining thirteen lines. This was highly unusual for a sonnet at the time and reflects the poet's innovative thinking.
The reader is effectively listening in to a conversation between two people, one recently returned from a journey through an ancient country. It is this person's narrative that describes the huge statue in the sands of the desert, a former monument of a great leader, now in pieces and forgotten.
Shelley's evocative language creates some very powerful images. From the second line on the reader is painted a vivid picture with words such as vast and trunkless..half sunk...shattered visage...frown and wrinkled lip...sneer of cold command...this is a pretty damning description of Ozymandias (Greek name for an Egyptian pharaoh called Rameses II, 1300BCE) and reflects Shelley's own thoughts on those who crave and wield power.
The words written on the pedestal, the stand that once held the statue, now seem meaningless and rhetorical; it's the statement of an arrogant despot.
This broken, weathered statue lies in a desert, a desolate place that goes on for miles and miles. Not many people pass through that desert, or would want to, in contrast with the past. A once great leader has been left to history and will be buried in the sand in time.
Ozymandias is a commentary on the ephemeral nature of absolute political power. Monarchs and dictators and tyrants are all subject to change sooner or later - and Shelley's language reflects his dislike for such rulers.
- Note the use of sunk/ shattered/ sneer of cold command/ lifeless/ mocked/ fed/ decay/ bare/ lone....words that seek to undermine those in positions of privilege and power.
What is clear is the contempt held for the arrogance of this ruler Ozymandias, for his hand mocked and his greedy heart fed on the people, and only the sculptor's great skill remains to record these things.
The inscription further reinforces the idea that this once all powerful leader thought greatly of himself, building up his ego by declaring he is king of kings no less. Surely no one could surpass his greatness?
Shelley's use of despair puts everything into perspective. Ozymandias thought himself so Mighty that even others who claimed their works were mighty would pale into insignificance. To contest this claim would be their ruin.
The mightier they are, the heavier they fall seems to be a part of Shelley's message.
Written in 1817, Shelley no doubt had opinions on the state of Britain and Europe at that time and Ozymandias could well have been influenced by the life of one Napoleon Bonaparte, the would be Emperor of all Europe and beyond. He had invaded Egypt a few years earlier and fought with the British to keep control of the Nile and its lands. Napoleon eventually lost out and was exiled to a distant island, St Helena, where he died in 1821.
Ozymandias stands the test of time and is relevant for this and every other age. Dictators, despots and others who abuse their absolute power will fall foul of events eventually.
Shelley's choice of a sonnet within which to work his words is fascinating, for the sonnet is a tight, packed field of regularity. It is the traditional form for the expression of love. So did the sonnet form appeal because he wanted to invert the notion of love for someone?
- Reading Ozymandias satisfactorily is a challenge - there are three voices, the original "I", the traveler and the voice of Ozymandias himself. What makes the whole so successful is the way the poet has seamlessly woven all three together, the final image of the distant, endless sands contrasting powerfully with the now hollow words of Ozymandias.
Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
The Hand of the Poet, Rizzoli, 1997
The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005
Questions & Answers
What is the meaning of the poem "Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe?
The meaning is that over time, egos and power become but dust.Helpful 114
© 2017 Andrew Spacey