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A critical appreciation of this poem relies on understanding the significance of the setting. The speaker reports a tale that he heard from a "traveller from an antique land," which introduces the theme of decaying and destroyed civilisations that were once great. The story that this traveller tells the speaker goes on to reinforce this theme.
The "shattered visage" that this traveller finds still bears upon it the marks of a complete despot who is secure in his power and reign: his "sneer of cold command" is particularly effective thanks to the very emotive word "sneer" and the alliteration of the "cold command" which reinforces the coldness and absolute terror that this figure would have once commanded in his lifetime.
However, the massive central irony in this poem lies in the juxtaposition of the words on the pedestal to the surrounding landscape:
"My name is OZYMANDIAS, King of Kings."
Look on my works ye Mighty, and despair!
No thing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that Colossal Wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
The contrast between the confident and arrogant claim of Ozymandias, and his belief in his eternal power and significance is clearly belied by the reality of the "Colossal Wreck," all that is left of his once-mighty empire, and the way that it is surrounded by sands that are "boundless and bare." Again, the alliteration in this phrase seems to emphasise the open nature of the setting and that for all of his power and might, the kingdom of Ozymandias has gone the way of all civilisations, and been destroyed by the ravages of time and weather.
Ozymandias, the most outstanding political sonnet written by P.B. Shelley throws light on the power of time. Nothing can beat time. It treats everyone equally whether rich or poor, king or pauper.
The poem is an account of the meeting and conversation between the poet and the narrator. The narrator had just returned from an antique and unique land. The poem begins with the traveller telling the poet that he had seen a vast but ruined statue, where stood two giant legs, isolated in the desert. The face was sunk in the sand, frowning and sneering. The sculptor interpreted his subject well. There also was a pedestal at the statue, where the traveller noticed that the statue read “Ozymandias, King of Kings.” Through the note written on pedestal, the traveller came to know that he was a powerful king named Ozymandias who could not face the power of time. His strength, works or ego - nothing had remained. He had been perished by the storm of time and was now standing trunk-less in the vast desert. The expressions noticed by the traveller were those of frown and ignorant pride. It could well be understood that the ruler was tyrannous.
The poem conveys the message that man is mortal. He might be proud of his powers but the reality is far more cruel that everything comes to an end as the time keeps on moving and changing. Immortality is the fact concerned with views, time, poetry and goodness only. Thus, Shelley points out very well the power of time. He says that how much ever the emperor might be cruel and powerful in his own time, the race with time can never be won.
Finally, we cannot miss the general comment on human vanity in the poem. It is not just the “mighty” who desire to withstand time; it is common for people to seek immortality and to resist death and decay. Furthermore, the sculptor himself gets attention and praise that used to be deserved by the king, for all that Ozymandias achieved has now “decayed” into almost nothing, while the sculpture has lasted long enough to make it into poetry. In a way, the artist has become more powerful than the king. The only things that “survive” are the artist’s records of the king’s passion, carved into the stone.
Perhaps Shelley chose the medium of poetry in order to create something more powerful and lasting than what politics could achieve, all the while understanding that words too will eventually pass away. Unlike many of his poems, “Ozymandias” does not end on a note of hope. There is no extra stanza or concluding couplet to honour the fleeting joys of knowledge or to hope in human progress. Instead, the traveller has nothing more to say, and the persona draws no conclusions of his own.
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