Why is the octave interesting in the poem "Ozmandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley?

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

The context of the poem “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley brings an added bonus to this classic poem.  Shelley and a friend decided to have a sonnet competition. They selected a partially destroyed statue of Ramses II or Ozymandias that was being exhibited in London.  Of course, Shelley won the contest. 

The poem took the form of a Petrarchan sonnet. This type of sonnet has two parts: the octave and the sestet.  The octave (eight lines)  suggests a problem which will be resolved or better understood in the last six lines. The ninth  line usually denotes the shift in the direction of the poem.  The rhyme scheme does not follow the usual pattern of the sonnet.

To answer the question, the first part of the sonnet is necessary to set the scene for the sestet which portrays the purpose of not only the statue but the poem itself. The story takes on a mysterious quality with the traveler telling his story of the statue’s discovery. 

The reader must use his imagination to visualize the scene described.  The ancient Egyptian culture has captivated interest in the American thoughts for many years.  Stemming from the Biblical references to Ramses to the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamen, the significance of the Egyptian history is notable. Yes, the octet is not only interesting but important.

In Shelley’s time, it is learned that Napoleon had shot into the statue of Ozymandias during his march through Egypt. In addition, this occurrence reminds the reader of current events and the bringing down of the statue of Saddam Hussein and then his unpleasant death.  Shelley had the foresight to understand the meaning behind these statues of despots who believe that their legacy will live beyond their own lives.

The first person narrator begins the poem with a story of meeting a traveler who had gone to an ancient land obviously Eqypt. Here he sees the remains of a huge statue in the desert.  Only the legs and pedestal remain in place with the face sunken into the sand showing only the frowning, sneering mouth. The artist was able to capture the inner turmoil of the pharaoh implying that the artist can see into the true nature of people. 

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.

The poem implies that although the statue cannot speak, the frown and sneer speak volumes about the impression that the ruler wanted to leave on his people and posterity. In a few lines, Shelley brings to light several historical issues: all leaders die regardless of their braggadocio; nothing lasts forever; and the fleeting time of tyrannical power

The sestet then symbolizes the contention of the poet.  Ironically, the tyrant asks for the other world leaders and his people to survey his accomplishments.  However, nothing remains of them but a few pieces of the destroyed statue.  Because Ozymandias thought that he was a superior king, he had to have a “colossal statue.” The surrounding area is even bleak and desolate.  The pharaoh’s legacy has been abandoned.



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