What are some poetic devices in "Ozymandias"?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There are a few poetic devices in the poem which are not covered in previous answers, or which are covered only briefly. Probably the most important device in this poem is the symbolism of the statue. Shelley was writing at a time of tremendous scientific and technological advances, during what...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

There are a few poetic devices in the poem which are not covered in previous answers, or which are covered only briefly. Probably the most important device in this poem is the symbolism of the statue. Shelley was writing at a time of tremendous scientific and technological advances, during what became known as the Age of Enlightenment. This poem, and lots of other literature at this time, including his wife's novel, Frankenstein, can be read as allegories warning against the dangers of the excessive pride consequent of these scientific and technological advances. The statue in the poem can thus be read as a symbol representing the pride of mankind. The statue, like the excessive pride of man, comes to nothing.

Another device found in this poem is a semantic field. A semantic field describes a pattern of language which feeds into a common theme. In this instance, we have language such as "shattered," "lifeless," "Nothing," "decay," "boundless," and "bare." These words all connote the emptiness and desolation that, so the poem suggests, inevitably follows excessive human pride.

There are also, in the eleventh line of the poem, two techniques which help us to formulate an impression of the eponymous "Ozymandias." In this line, the speaker reveals the second line of words inscribed on the statue's pedestal: "Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair." This is at once an imperative sentence and an exclamatory sentence. An imperative sentence is phrased as an order, and in this instance, it implies Ozymandias's demanding, forceful character. This impression is compounded by the fact that the sentence is also exclamatory.

One other point worth noting is that the name Ozymandias is a charactonym. In other words, the meaning of this name reflects the character who bears it. Ozymandias is the Greek name for the Egyptian pharaoh, Rameses II. This Greek name derives from two words. The first part, "Ozy," derives from the word ozium, meaning oxygen, or air, and the second part, "mandias," derives from the word mandate, meaning to rule. Thus, the Greek name for Rameses II roughly translates as "he who rules the air." This seems fitting given what we learn about him during the poem.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Shelley uses the poetic form of the sonnet, a 14- line lyrical form that structures the poem into an eight-line octet followed by a six-line sestet.

The speaker uses apostrophe, a literary device in which the speaker addresses an unknown person or an object. In this case, the speaker seems to be addressing a friend to whom he is telling a story in a conversational way, beginning the poem with, "I met a traveller." This technique pulls us into the story as if we, too, were listening to it. The speaker also uses ellipses—"Stand in the desert . . . Near them"—which also adds to the illusion that we are hearing the pertinent parts of a longer narrative, with the more tedious parts omitted.

The speaker uses imagery, which is descriptive language that uses the five senses of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell, to offer us a visual glimpse of Ozymandias's face: it has a "wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command," something we can see and which communicates that the ruler was arrogant.

Near the end of the sonnet, Shelley uses a series of alliterations, which is when words beginning with the same consonant are placed close together: I have bolded them below so you can note the repeated b, l, and s sounds that add a sense of rhythm to the poem's end:

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"Ozymandias," a classic work of Romantic poetry by Percy Bysshe Shelley, employs many poetic and literary devises to tell its tale of a fallen monument to a past king's greatness.

Rhythm: The poem is written in iambic pentameter, a poetic meter in which each line is composed of ten syllables, falling into five pairs, or iambs, alternating between unstressed and stressed. You can see this in the first line of the poem, "I met a traveler from an antique land" (emphasis added).

Rhyme: The rhyme scheme begins as alternating but breaks in line nine.

Frame Tale: More often thought of as a general literary device than as a poetic one, a frame tale is when a story is contained within a larger story. Shelley couches his description of the statue of Ozymandias in a frame tale of having been told to the speaker by "a traveler." The majority of the poem is then presented as having been spoken by the traveler's voice, rather than the speaker's own.

Alliteration: Alliteration is the repetition of the same sound at the start of several words. There are three really notable examples of this in the poem: "King of Kings," "boundless and bare," and "lone and level."

Enjambment: Enjambment is when a thought is continued from one line of verse to the next. To identify enjambment, look for line breaks that lack punctuation, like lines 2, 6, 12, and 13 here.

Irony: Irony is a huge device in this poem—specifically, the irony of a statue meant to proclaim the might and power of a king, fallen into complete wreckage and disrepair. No one is going to look at the ruins of this monument and "despair."

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Format and Rhythm

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Ozymandias follows a closed form, meaning that it is subject to a fixed structure and pattern, as follows:

It is a 14-line sonnet, metered in iambic pentameter, with a rhyme pattern of ABABA CDC_D EFEF. Note that the rhyme pattern is broken in line 9 with half rhyme, perhaps symbolizing the brokenness of the king from his pedestal.

Adding to the rhythm, Shelley uses enjambment at the end of lines 1, 2, 6, 12, and 13. This lack of end punctuation helps the pacing of his poem flow where his wants ideas to blend, while the lines with end punctuation slow us down where we are to pause and take notice.

Sound Effects

Shelley applies numerous techniques that add to the soft, romantic flow of the poem. Here is a sampling:

Assonance: Line 1 - "traveler from an antique land" Line 3 - "stand...sand"

Alliteration: Line 5 - "cold command" Line 13 - "boundless and bare"

Consonance: Line 5 - "wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command"

Onomatopoeia: Line 5: "sneer" (It’s just so easy to wrinkle your lips or nose when saying this, isn’t it?)

Euphony: Line 14 - The combination of vowels and consonants here flow with beautiful harmony.

The Meanings of Words

The language is so subtly manipulated that you have to look closely to catch these deeper meanings:

Epithet: The "trunkless legs" and "shattered visage" are unusual descriptions that speak volumes.

Synecdoche: The "hand" and "heart" refer to the sculptor himself, whose work has partly survived him.

Antithesis: In line 13 the "colossal wreck" displays the contrast between the once-prodigious king and his now time-ravaged statue.

Circumlocution: Ozymandias’ order to "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" is spoken to God, which is suggested by the capitalization of Mighty. Yet this king was so prideful, boasting of his own greatness, that he chose a roundabout way to refer to God, whom he felt superior to.

Apostrophe: Lines 10 and 11 are spoken to God, who is not physically present. Observing the ruin of Ozymandias’ kingdom, Shelley’s largely Christian audience of the 19th century would have sarcastically pointed out that God was clearly not present with this king during his reign, either.

Irony: There is situational, verbal, and dramatic irony resulting from Ozymandias’ words. He bragged of the great kingdom he built, and he felt that his power would surpass that of God. Yet when we follow his command to look, all we see is what is left of his sneering face, fallen at his own feet. His trunk, which would have housed his heart, is not even present, and his mighty kingdom has returned to dust.

Symbolism: Shelley’s message is not really to Ozymandias; it’s too late for him. Yet we can take a great life lesson from this poem, if we see that the vastly stretching desert represents life and time. Ozymandias stands in for any ruler, even us as we command our own lives. The pedestal, then, is all that we build our lives on and feel so proud of.

Tone: On the very surface, Shelley presents this egocentric king in a very satirical way. We hear the poet’s sarcasm as he describes the haughty face that is decaying in the sand at its own feet. The laughingly absent kingdom that Ozymandias boasts of begins to feel a little tragic, especially when we view our own lives through the filter of this poem.

Yet if we dig another level deeper, we might feel Shelley’s compelling tone about how to live life, not based on pride, cold command or tangible objects, but on things that will outlast us. If someone were to sculpt you one day, would his hand and heart mock you? And what motto would you leave behind for others to consider?

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team