Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Poetry Analysis: Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

by M. J. Joachim
Updated 11/04/15


I met a traveler 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.


Wrapped up in a story, the tale of one man’s power from the past is riddled into his demise of the future in the classic poem “Ozymandias”. Whether you seek to read it as political power lost or pride defeated by humility, Shelley’s poem is about the permanent truths of all time. Nothing lasts forever and presumed greatness, even when carved in stone can be shattered.

Ultimate care was taken to remove the author from the subject being written about. The opening line of Ozymandias tells of a traveler sharing a story that happened somewhere else. This traveler goes on to describe a stone statue of a person who is mighty and powerful. This is a figure that dominates others with a strong hand and threatening frown, someone who knows how to get what he wants at any cost.

Ah, but lest you be deceived, amidst these sturdy descriptions is telling information about how the passage of time has affected the powerful image portrayed. “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desert,” claims the traveler. “Near them,” having been broken off from them, the frowning face lies sunken in the sand.

It is the sculptor whose passions are intensely revealed in Ozymandias. His labor could not be erased by the passage of time. Each and every artistic mark remains "stamped on these lifeless things." Shelley bravely speaks through the traveler, of the sculptor’s passion and mocking hand that carved this magnificent tribute to "Ozymandias, king of kings," titled and including an inscription, "Look upon my works, ye Mighty and despair!" Ozymandias claims greatness equal to God in a most daring and challenging way. The sculptor reveals his state of mind and arrogance permanently for all time.

Conclusion of the traveler’s story shows the baseness of Ozymandias’s claims. Finality reveals his ultimate demise figuratively and permanently, as this statue created to preserve the legacy of Ozymandias, is nothing more than a heap of rubbish in the middle of a vast and empty desert.

As a sonnet, the poem Ozymandias is a bit unusual, varying from the expected iambic pentameter rhythm and sequence. Shelley appears to have written the poem more freely, allowing the metaphor described therein to provide the maximum effect on its reader.

Written in the early 1800’s, Ozymandias has earned recognition as one of Shelley’s most famous poems. It has appeared in numerous anthologies and is praised as a remarkable piece that applies itself to any number of great themes and eternal truths, making it a treasured masterpiece in the literary world.

Ah, lots to think about with this one. Best to all!

M. J.

Photo credit: Bodleian Library, Oxford, Public Domain
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