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.
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?