How does Shelley present time in "Ozymandias"?

Shelley presents time in "Ozymandias" as being the great leveler. It doesn’t matter how great we are, or how great we think we are, we can all eventually be forgotten just like the pharaoh of the title.

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The great pharaoh Ozymandias , otherwise known as Ramses II, clearly thought very highly of himself. On the pedestal of his crumbling statue in the desert are the words “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair.” The problem with that, however, is that none of Ozymandias’s works are there...

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The great pharaoh Ozymandias, otherwise known as Ramses II, clearly thought very highly of himself. On the pedestal of his crumbling statue in the desert are the words “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair.” The problem with that, however, is that none of Ozymandias’s works are there for anyone to see; they no longer exist. The long-dead pharaoh has been completely forgotten by history, a neglect that is perfectly symbolized by his decaying statue.

Like so many figures from history, Ozymandias has fallen into total obscurity. When he was alive, he was so powerful, so arrogant, so haughty, that he thought his name and works would live on long after his death; that even the mighty would despair at ever equaling, let alone excelling, his remarkable achievements. But that simply hasn’t happened. If Ozymandias were still around, he’d be mortified to see both this posthumous reputation and his statue crumbling into the sands.

What we see here is time the great leveler at work. It doesn’t matter how great we are, or how great we think we are; whether we’re kings or beggars, queens or peasants, we will one day die. We will all be reduced to the same level. And after we die, time will still go on as before, potentially erasing from the historical record whatever we achieved in our earthly lives.

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Shelley presents time as something which continues, ever passing, and results in our being forgotten, despite our best efforts to be remembered. An unnamed narrator speaks of an unnamed "traveller" who speaks of an unnamed "sculptor" who created a statue of a king named Ozymandias, and this king -- though he apparently has done a great many significant things (his "Works" that would make the "Mighty [...] despair") -- has been lost to the "lone and level sands" that stretch far into the distance of the desert. Only the "vast and trunkless legs" of the statue stand, and a sunken and "shattered visage" with a "wrinkled lip" and a cold "sneer" lies in the sand. His "Works" have been lost to time, as have the names of everyone else referenced in the poem. We don't know the name of the speaker, the traveler, or the sculptor, and though we know the time of the king represented by the statue, we don't know anything else about him and his supposedly big deeds. Time passes and takes our memories with it; at best, we can try to piece together bits and snippets of lives and stories that have come before us, and we might also realize that the very same thing will happen to us with the inevitable and routine passage of time.

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In the poem "Ozymandias," Shelley illustrates time as permanent, everlasting, and constant, which contrasts with the transitory nature of human existence. The once great statue of Rameses II is depicted as a decaying, broken structure, which is half-buried in the desert sands. The visage of Rameses II is cracked, and the damaged statue is described as being a "colossal wreck." The menacing text that describes Rameses's omnipotence that is written on the base of the statue is ironic and represents man's ephemeral, fleeting existence. The vast, "boundless" desert sands that stretch far into the distance symbolically represent the everlasting, unconquerable nature of time. By juxtaposing the broken statue that was constructed to last an eternity with the endless sands, Shelley is able to convey the message that glory, personal accomplishments, and tyranny are fleeting and will not stand the test of time.

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In "Ozymandias," time is shown to be constant, sharply contrasting with the way human beings live their lives.

Shelley shows human beings to be finite. They are transitory, entering and leaving. This impermanence is seen in the poem's opening about meeting "a traveller from an antique land." The traveller passes and is far from permanent. Ozymandias is seen in the same way. He believes himself to be meaningful and powerful, someone who can tell others to "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" However, his statue has eroded and there is nothing left of his reign. In these examples, human beings are temporal creatures.

In the poem, the only constant is time. It is as consistent as the stretching sand that concludes the poem. Time keeps going as it permanently encompasses the life of human beings. While human beings are impermanent and not lasting, time continues its march. Time was there when Ozymandias ruled and when the statue was built. It continues even after Ozymandias dies and the statue crumbles. Time is there when the speaker meets the traveller, and will be there when both of them die as well. Shelley portrays time as infinite and inescapable. We can see that the permanent nature of time contrasts with the way human beings live their lives.

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