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Percy Bysshe Shelley's sonnet, "Ozymandias," is a wonderful statement to the folly of believing oneself more powerful than all men and—seemingly—time itself. For all of Ramses II's boasting, his life ended as all must (in death), and the statue erected to pay tribute to him lies broken and half-hidden in the sand.
The poem itself is written in the Italian (or Petrarchan) style. Like other sonnets, it is comprised of fourteen lines, and each of these lines is written in iambic pentameter: ten syllables per line, with the stress on every other syllable. While this is the standard, Shelley soon deviates, and along with the rhyme scheme (see below)...
...helps to underscore the poem’s essential irony...the very syntax forced by the unusual rhyme of the poem creates tension that matches that of the theme.
The Italian sonnet is divided into two parts: the octave (the first eight lines) and the sestet (the last six lines). This structure is used by the poet to organize his ideas: the first section discusses a problem or concern, while the second section presents a solution or resolution to the problem—or concern.
While traditionally the Italian sonnet form follows a rhyme scheme of ABBA ABBA CDE CDE, Shelley works with a much less traditional style:
abab, acdc, ece, fef
Shelley writes the sonnet in a manner in which a ballad provide more information with each chorus, using incremental repetition—which is...
...the repetition of a previous line or lines but with a slight variation each time, which advances the story stanza by stanza.
This sonnet is similar in that the information is also delivered incrementally.
Each line of the poem, from first to last, reveals successively one more layer of the narrative’s essential irony.
This structure allows the problem and the eventual resolution or conclusion to become clearer—a line at a time. Rather than repeating the content as the ballad does, something new is added—a pattern to move the theme along.
For instance, the sonnet first introduces the presence of a traveler the speaker has met. Each line thereafter provides a new detail about the statue and even the mastery of the sculptor. This occurs in the first eight lines (the octave).
For the last six lines (the sestet), the speaker relates details, line by line, with regard first to the statue's inscription...
'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Then he describes the inscription's present-day (at that time) relevance:
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck...
It is here, then, that the poem's structure points out the irony. In the octave we learn that the statue is broken in pieces; the sneering visage is have covered in sand—not terribly impressive. In the sestet, while the inscription taunts all who pass with an egoist's declaration of his might and importance, ironically now nothing remains of the man, the sculptor, and almost the statue: it does not impress the mighty, and no one despairs at its appearance. The abiding sand has lasted longer than the pharaoh, and will "outlive" even the stone pieces strewn about.
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