How is Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ozymandias" a response to political change in Europe?

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Vikash Lata eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Ozymandias" offers a keen insight into Shelley’s political ideologies. An advocate of political and religious freedom, he expressed his hatred for monarchy through his poems and other writings. Queen Mab, The Masque of Anarchy and Prometheus Unbound are some of his longer poems that demonstrate Shelley’s political thoughts and revolutionary spirit.

A few years before the first publication of "Ozymandias" in The Examiner in 1818, France under Napoleon had startled the world with his territorial conquests. Napoleon had taken control of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, most of Western Germany and northern Italy. However, he was captured by the forces of the Sixth Coalition (that included the United Kingdom, Portugal, Sweden, Spain, Austria, Prussia and a number of German States) in 1815. Napoleon finally died miserably in exile on St. Helena.

The poem may be read as an expression of Shelley’s hatred against tyrannical rulers. He was opposed to any kind of oppression—political, religious or intellectual.

During Shelley’s lifetime, Roman Catholics were facing oppression in a number of ways. The English parliament had passed the Act of Uniformity, the Test Acts and the Penal laws. These imposed severe restrictions on Roman Catholics and Nonconformists for not accepting the Anglican Church established by the English state.

What the government of England and the Church of England were doing was considered religious and intellectual oppression by Shelley. "Ozymandias" can also be read as his response to such injustice.

The ruler Ozymandias, also known as Ramses II, was believed to be a mighty and tyrannical ruler who used to erect his statues across the Egyptian Empire. The words written on the pedestal reveal his self-obsession and vanity:

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Drunk with self-pride and arrogance, he busied himself erecting his mammoth statues instead of caring for his subjects.

The poem presents biting satire of the vainglorious king by revealing the present ruined state of his statue.

“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.” 

The great city and its big structures built by Ozymandias have all vanished and a barren desert has replaced them. The broken statue of the conceited king is the only remnant of his rule.

Here, the poet’s response rings clear as a bell. In his poem, Shelley presents a strongly worded warning against the growing political intolerance and religious hegemony.

It may also be read as his strong indictment of one country’s forceful occupation of another country, as well as the Anglican Church’s imposition of restrictions on Roman Catholics.

According to the poet, if a political government continues to remain intolerant, self-centered and indifferent to the issue of social justice, its end would be inevitable and like the derelict statue of Ozymandias it would be forgotten by posterity.