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Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ozymandias" was first published in 1918. It's a sonnet, but it deviates from the traditional rhyme scheme.
It's a popular poem, often seen in literature anthologies.
Summary of "Ozymandias"
We'll start with the "plot" of the poem, what it is literally happening in it.
The speaker meets a traveler from an ancient land who tells him the story of something he saw.
In the desert, two large, stone legs stand. Nearby, partially covered with sand, is the sculpture's face. It is sneering with a commanding look. Otherwise, it's broken.
He believes this quality of detached authority preserved on the lifeless material was obvious in the original subject.
He sees the hand which kept his people subjugated, and the heart that took care of them.
The sculpture's pedestal identifies the subject as "Ozymandias, King of Kings." It tells those who see his accomplishments to despair.
That's all that remains. Around the massive rubble there is only sand stretching far into the distance.
Commentary on "Ozymandias"
Now we'll go through the poem a little at a time and consider some important details.
The opening establishes that the speaker has gotten this story from someone else. This creates some distance between the reader and the story.
The person was from an "antique land". This makes us imagine a setting like ancient Egypt.
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The first picture we get of the sculpture is of two huge legs standing alone. This gives us the immediate sense that everything is wrong. The traveler then describes the face of the sculpture. The juxtaposition of these two unconnected body parts emphasizes the destruction of the image. The decay is also evident in the face being party broken and half covered with sand.
The model for the sculpture is characterized with a frown, a "wrinkled lip", and a "sneer of cold command." The person represented was powerful and aloof.
The sculptor evidently knew the subject well enough to accurately capture his essence. These traits survive, or live on, in "lifeless things," calling attention to the subject's death.
This ruler's hand "mocked" his people by keeping them well below him. This could make us picture this powerful man pointing and otherwise gesturing as he issued orders to his underlings.
He also did some good, as the traveler speaks of his "heart that fed." The ruler was responsible for many people, and he used his power to meet their needs.
This ruler was important, certainly to himself, but also to others who looked to him for leadership.
Now we come to the pedestal, which contains the message this important man wanted to send to his contemporaries and future generations. After emphasizing the statue's destruction, the ironic contrast between the decay and the outrageous boast is comical.
No one remembers who Ozymandias is, let alone views him as "King of Kings". His order to "Look on my Works" is laughable, as all his works are long gone.
The closing lines tell us plainly what we've read: the colossal statue is now just a "colossal Wreck", and the empire of Ozymandias has been replaced by bare sand.
Themes in "Ozymandias"
Here are a few possible themes with some supporting details.
- The legs are "vast" and the wreck is "colossal"—the subject was powerful enough to commission a work of this size and expense.
- The face has a "sneer of cold command", suggesting the subject expected his orders to be followed.
- The subject's "hand that mocked them" indicates he had the power to keep his people subjugated, which would also help maintain his position.
- For a time, however brief, Ozymandias could proclaim himself "King of Kings."
- His statement, "Look on my Works", tells us he had the power to take credit for his people's work.
- His following statement to "despair" is ironic—the mighty should despair because their power won't last.
The Breaking Bad episode "Ozymandias" used the poem's theme of a powerful man losing his empire to parallel their story. You can listen to Bryan Cranston read the poem below. It's really awesome.
- The traveler is from an "antique land"—we know right away that the passage of time will be important in his story.
- The subject survives in "lifeless things". Time has taken its toll on his physical body; only rock has endured.
- Ozymandias and his works have decayed. His monument would likely have been placed prominently in his kingdom. Either his kingdom has been destroyed, or the monument was removed. Time has leveled his empire or changed it into something else, and destroyed his authority.
- The artist's work, the sculpture, has survived. Though not intact, it's a significant reminder of Ozymandias and his rule.
- The traits he carefully captured in the stone, because he "well those passions read", are still evident. Some of Ozymandias lives on in this art.
- While time erodes and destroys physical things, the power of art can grow through the years.
- Ozymandias's "frown", "wrinkled lip" and "sneer" indicates he was aloof. He looked with some disdain on those around him.
- His "hand that mocked them" indicates he wanted to keep others down.
- His statue was massive.
- He called himself "King of Kings". Even if that was true at the time, he arrogantly wanted everyone to know.
- He thinks other "Mighty" ones should despair when they compare themselves to him.
- The folly of pride is clear now that "Nothing beside remains." Ozymandias is broken rock, and his kingdom is "level sands."
What division is seen between the octave and the sestet?
In a sonnet, the ninth line marks a change—in the story or the tone, and in the rhyme scheme.
The octave, which is the first eight lines, establishes the premise or sets up a problem. In "Ozymandias", the octave deals with the ruined state of the statue. We're presented with this situation, but we don't know why we should care yet.
The sestet, which is the last six lines, brings some kind of resolution and meaning to the poem. In "Ozymandias", the sestet starts with the inscription which identifies the subject of the statue. Now we know why this broken statue is meaningful. It continues by making it clear that this wreck and the barren sand is all that's left of King Ozymandias and his works.