How does Shelley present ideas about power in "Ozymandias"?

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thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Shelley himself was politically radical. A self-avowed atheist, who opposed war and monarchy, he was the author of many radical pamphlets. His poem "Ozymandias" expresses in dramatic terms his ideas about power and authority.

The first thing to note is that for Shelley, any forms of power, restraint, or convention were usually inherently bad and he looked forward to the abolition of Christianity, monarchy, nationalism, and many other traditional forms of social structure of his period. 

His poem "Ozymandias" is based on Ramses II, one of the greatest and most powerful Egyptian pharaohs. In the poem, he portrays this power as both tyrannical and ephemeral. The negative side of power is emphasized by the description of the statue's face as possessed of a:

... frown

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command

Shelley emphasizes the ephemeral nature of power with the irony of the toppled and broken statue fallen from a pedestal proclaiming the greatness of the subject of its portrait. The pharaoh is seen as so far from eternally powerful that even the statue's existence is only reported as a traveler's tale rather than encountered directly by the narrator.

amybergen | Student

In Shelley's Ozymandias, power is corrupting and fleeting. Power also warps the minds of demagogues, such as the ancient Pharaoh in the poem (the eponymous Ozymandias). His face is trapped in a "sneer of cold command" with a "frown, and wrinkled lip", telling the audience he was likely an unkind ruler. "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair" indicates he was egomaniacal, believing future rulers ("ye Mighty") would "despair" because they could never hope to be as great as he was. 

Imagery such as "half sunk" and "a colossal wreck" suggests that power has large plans, but when they go wrong, they wreak large destruction. Power in the poem is also ephemeral - Ozymandias's monument is destroyed, and decaying in the stretching sands. 

lthorp91 | Student

Percy Bysshe Shelley presents several ideas about power in his poem 'Ozymandias', the primary one being that power (no matter how strong) is fleeting. Shelley does this largely through the imagery used in the poem; as the poem progresses, the images become more and more focused on the depiction of a once-powerful and intimidating ruler now crumbled in a desert wasteland.

Shelley presents this idea of the loss of power even before the poem's speaker makes it clear that he is describing a former ruler:

"Two vast and trunkless legs of stone/Stand in the desert..."

This image of two stone legs standing without a body already brings in the notion of what was once whole now being destroyed. It is also an immediate image of powerlessness because legs have no power without a body; the body is the source of power.

The description of the statue and its inscription bring in a more focused image of the loss of power:

"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 fallen body of the statue - the source of power - is described as "half sunk" and "shattered". Not only has the body been dismembered, but it is being further broken down; it is a complete destruction of what was once whole. The description of the statue's face shows shows coldness and cruelty - the primary characteristics embodied by this ruler. And while these characteristics "survive", they survive because they are "stamped on lifeless things"; this is really not survival at all.

"And on the pedestal, these words appear:/My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;/Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

This inscription finally reveals that the statue is one of a ruler and a great one at that. He is compared to God: he is the "King of Kings", which is a description usually attributed to God. He even seems to address God by using the phrase "ye Mighty". The capitalization of "Mighty" echoes the use of "Almighty" when referring to God. Ozymandias even goes so far as to command "ye Mighty" - likely God and other mighty rulers - to "look on [his] Works...and despair!" He believes his power to be so absolute as to be a match to the power of God.

The juxtaposition of this absolute power with the depiction of the desert landscape at the end of the poem fully realizes Shelley's idea about the impermanence of power:

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

For all of the power this ruler had, nothing remains aside from these words on a lifeless piece of stone and the "boundless and bare" sand. The desert landscape underscores the impermanence of power - and life itself - as it alludes to the Bible passage found in Genesis:

"For you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

This depiction of the impermanence and fleeting nature of power and rulers themselves is likely related to Shelley's own thoughts and experiences during the French Revolution. As David Mikics points out, the image of these ancient ruins actually made its way to Europe after Napoleon's conquest of Egypt in 1798. It is not difficult to see the connection Shelley was attempting to make between the image of this fallen ruler and the trajectory of the life and career of Napoleon and other French rulers. 

teachersage | Student

Shelley, an enthusiastic supporter of the French revolution, wrote Ozymandias in 1818. In the poem, he uses the remains of a statue of a once-great ruler named Ozymandias (in reality the Egyptian pharaoh, Ramses II) to comment on the limits of power. Ozymandias had once inscribed an enormous statue of himself with the words "look on my works, ye mighty, and despair." Ozymandias had intended for his works--the city he had built, his huge statue and his conquests in war--to frighten people, even other rulers ("ye mighty") into believing his power was unstoppable and would never end. But now his statue lies in shattered pieces, his great city has become a sandy desert, and nobody fears him at all. What Ozymandias had inscribed on his statue has become ironic, taking on a completely different meaning than he intended. The mighty should despair because they too will be shattered, their kingdoms reduced to empty wastelands. Shelley uses the poem to express the futility of all tyrannical power and to expose the emptiness of a despot's grand claims. 

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