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.