The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“Ozymandias” is a sonnet composed by the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and named for its subject, with the Greek name of the Egyptian king Ramses II, who died in 1234 b.c.e. The poem follows the traditional structure of the fourteen-line Italian sonnet, featuring an opening octave, or set of eight lines, that presents a conflict or dilemma, followed by a sestet, or set of six lines, that offers some resolution or commentary upon the proposition introduced in the octave.
The poem is conventionally written in iambic pentameter (that is, ten syllables per line of coupled unstressed then stressed sounds), so the poem’s subject matter is framed both by the structural and metrical constraints chosen by the poet.
The first-person narrator of “Ozymandias” introduces a conversation he has chanced to have with a “traveller from an antique land” in line 1. The reader knows neither the identity of the traveler nor the circumstances wherein the poet has encountered the traveler but may assume he is a source of information about a strange and unfamiliar world.
The remaining thirteen lines of the poem quote verbatim the tale that the traveler has borne from his trek into the desert. The intrepid explorer has encountered “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone,” the vestiges of a statue in disrepair whose head lay as a “shattered visage” nearby. Despite its broken state, the “frown,” the...
(The entire section is 460 words.)
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
The Italian sonnet presents the poet with the challenge of using an utterly familiar form in an innovative or provocative way. The chief variables within this form involve rhyme scheme. The traditional Italian sonnet features an abba, abba, cde, cde rhyme scheme, each letter representing a different end rhyme that is repeated in pattern.
In “Ozymandias,” Shelley chooses to forgo the conventional scheme and employs a more eccentric abab, acdc, ece, fef pattern that creates the immediate effect of a woven tapestry of sound and rhythm that helps to underscore the poem’s essential irony. As the reader’s expectations are unmet, the very syntax forced by the unusual rhyme of the poem creates tension that matches that of the theme.
Critics have long noted the “Chinese box” frame in which the story of Ozymandias has come to the poet and thus, indirectly, to the reader. Each line of the poem, from first to last, reveals successively one more layer of the narrative’s essential irony.
One learns first something of the poet’s conversation with the mysterious traveler “from an antique land.” The poet, in turn, reports but one tidbit of that conversation, “Who said—,” in the very words of the traveler. Laboriously, the speaker then moves through each wave of recognition and interpretation of what he has encountered, climaxing with the presentation of Ozymandias’s inscription.
Shelley’s sonnet is remarkable for its spare and stark imagery. The poet is determined to re-create the barren desert landscape, the poetic counterpoint to the morbid and deserved fate of Ozymandias, the pompous fool. To do so requires that he carefully circumscribe his choice of descriptors to connote neither grandeur nor panoramic vista, but rather singular loneliness and constrained, fragmented solitude. Hence such modifiers as “trunkless,” “Half-sunk,” “shattered,” “decay,” and “wreck” serve his purpose well.
Consequently, the compression of the sonnet form, the unconventional rhyme scheme, the point of view chosen for reader entry, and the carefully wrought diction of the poem achieve the effect the poet was seeking. Amid vast stretches of unbroken sameness, the traveler—followed by the poet, then the reader—comes upon a bleak personage whose severed limbs and head first shock and dismay, then elicit reluctant mockery for the egotism of its subject.
Ozymandias (Magill Book Reviews)
The poem’s narrator presents the reader with a stunning vision of the tomb of Ozymandias, another name for Rameses II, King of Egypt during the 13th century B.C. Shelley emphasizes that to a modern viewer this tomb tells quite a different tale than that which Ozymandias had hoped it would. The king evidently commissioned a sculptor to create an enormous sphinx to represent his enduring power, but the traveler comes across only a broken heap of stones ravaged by time.
Enough of the original monument exists to allow Shelley a moment of triumph over the thwarted plans of the ruler. The face of Ozymandias is still recognizable, but it is “shattered,” and, though his “sneer of cold command” persists, it is obvious that he no longer commands anyone or anything. The vaunting words carved into the stone pedestal can still be read: “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Yet he is to be pitied, if not disdained, rather than held in awe and fear: The broken-down tomb is set in a vast wasteland of sand, perhaps Shelley’s way of suggesting that all tyrants ultimately end up in the only kind of kingdom they deserve, a barren desert.
Shelley’s sonnet, however, would not be the great poem it surely is if it were only a bit of political satire. The irony of “Ozymandias” cuts much deeper as the reader realizes that the forces of mortality and mutability, described brilliantly in the concluding lines, will erode and destroy all our lives. There is a special justice in the way tyrants are subject to time, but all humans face death and decay. The poem remains primarily an ironic and compelling critique of Ozymandias and other rulers like him, but it is also a striking meditation on time-bound humanity: the traveler in the ancient land, the sculptor-artist who fashioned the tomb, and the reader of the poem, no less than Ozymandias, inhabit a world that is “boundless and bare.”