How does irony play a role in "Ozymandias" by Percy Byssche Shelley?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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"Ozymandias" by Percy Byssche Shelley is a poem in sonnet form which chronicles the rise and ultimate fall of a great king's empire as well as the evaporation of his fame, something this arrogant king assumed would live forever. It is a warning to anyone who thinks their fame and glory will last forever.

We have the image of a once-grand stone statue; it undoubtedly stood in a prominent place in the middle of the king's vast empire. Perhaps it even stood on the edge of his holdings, a physical presence of the mighty king to all who were about to enter his empire. Now it stands, broken, in the middle of a vast desert. 

..."Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed."

The statue now consists of two legs on a pedestal; the head of the once-great king lies next to the crumbling structure, half buried in sand and shattered almost beyond recognition. The look on his face tells us the man who built this empire was a ruthless and imperious man, one who probably built his empire through cruelty and greed. The speaker of the poem notes that the sculptor accurately captured the mocking and scorning sneer of this once-mighty king.

We learn the name of this king, Ozymandias, when we read the inscription on the base of the statue.

"And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'"

This is one of the great ironies of the poem. This one-time colossal statue was here to mark the empire of this king who wanted everyone to look at what he has accomplished and be intimidated by the spectacle. No doubt it was, at least for a time, an effective deterrent to those who wanted to threaten this king and his holdings. Ironically, 

"Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away." 

This former grand empire, the apparent source of intimidation and power to all who came near, is now a wasteland. Nothing is left but the meaningless but ironic warning to occasional desert wanderers. 

One other irony is that this is a warning to all who think the things they create will last forever, which is essentially what writers, musicians, and artists wish for their creations and themselves. Ironically, then, this poet is reminding himself that what he creates (this poem) is not likely to last, even as he writes it for that very purpose.

And, in one final irony, this particular poem has lasted, since we are still reading it and talking about it today.

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