One of the classic poems in the English language had an unusual beginning. Percy Bysshe Shelley and a friend challenged each other to write a sonnet; and then the sonnets would be judged to determine the best one. The sonnet’s subject was a partially-destroyed statue of Ramses II [Ozymandias] that was taken from Egypt to London. Of course, Shelley’s poem “Ozmandias” won the contest.
The poem is written as a Petrarch sonnet. It has fourteen lines and follows a set rhyme scheme: ABABACDCEFEF. The poem is divided in two sections with the first eight lines or octave and the next six lines or sestet.
The point of view in the poem is first person. Shelley takes on the role as narrator. In the second line, the narrator allows the traveler to tell his story of his adventure while visiting Egypt [the ancient land].
The poem begins probably in London where the poet meets a man who has been traveling in an ancient land. The rest of the poem is at the site of the crumbling statue in the sands of a desert.
The tone is ironic and mocking. The great king builds a huge statue of himself to glorify his accomplishments. It now is in shambles. Sarcastically, the poet establishes a mood to point up foolishness of tyrannical leaders.
Nothing lasts forever. Even a powerful king cannot stop the ravages of time and the weather. More importantly, the last half of the sonnet indicates a disdain for the ruler who feels it necessary to brag about all of his accomplishments.
Ironically, the primary theme that emerges in this poem is that the statue represents a man who was a powerful and proud king. And yet everything that he took pride in has returned to the sands. Inferred in this theme is the certainty of our own passing into worldly obscurity. Nothing lasts forever.
- Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
- The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Enjambment-[Carrying the sense of one line of verse over to the next time without a pause]
Near, on the sand,
Half sun, a shattered visage lies, who frown,
The poet meets a man who has traveled to an ancient land. The man tells him a story of an adventure in the desert. The traveler sees the ruins of a huge statue of Ozymandias or Ramses II. All that is left of the state are the two legs standing up. Partially buried in the sand near the legs is the face of the statue with a scoffing look of complete control. The talented sculptor portrayed the passions of the great ruler displaying his dislike of anyone who challenges his importance. Obviously, the hand held aloft was meant to show his power.
In the sestet, the primary theme is located. On the pedestal of the statue there is a message which has survived.
My name is Ozmandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Proud of the buildings and his architecture, this great king has no remnants left of his great empire. Surrounding the ruins is the seemingly never ending singular sands.
The poem speaks to the immense size of the statue which symbolizes Ramses’ arrogance and ambition. Longevity was important for this and other sculpture. The words on the statue promoted Ozmandias; however, with just the words surviving, the pharaoh’s becomes a mockery representing the fleeting life of the ruler and his legacy. The ruination of the statue represents the impermanence of political leaders [Hitler and the Nazis] and their regimes.