What is the message of Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem "Ozymandias"?
Overall, the message of Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ozymandias" is in the idea that power is temporary, even that of great rulers who may believe their power to be immortal.
The meaning or themes of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” are fairly straightforward and are also highly traditional. Basically, the poem reminds powerful people that their power is only temporary. However much powerful people may wish to think that their power is immortal, they are only deceiving themselves. Earthly power is mutable, and indeed all human beings (Shelley may imply) need to remember this lesson.
What makes all these meanings highly memorable, of course, are the techniques Shelley uses, including the following:
- The speaker of the poem doesn’t himself preach; instead, he merely quotes the words of another person (the "traveller"), so that we are more likely to listen and consider the opinions the poem expresses. The speaker himself does not come across as a mere propagandist; rather, he presents himself as an honest reporter.
- Although the poem has obvious relevance to (and implications for) powerful people of the present day, Shelley keeps it from seeming a mere piece of contemporary political propaganda by making it a lesson about powerful figures of the past. Readers are more likely to listen to a general moral lesson than to a lesson that seems aimed at particular political targets of the present.
- By keeping the poem short, Shelley gives it added impact and increases the likelihood that it will be read. Few people have taken the time to read Shelley’s long political poems, but many, many readers have read and been moved by “Ozymandias.”
- By presenting this message about mutability in the form of a sonnet, Shelley deals ironically with a genre often associated with love. However, Shakespeare’s sonnet 55 is similar in various ways to Shelley’s poem, as are various political sonnets by Milton and Wordsworth.
- Shelley uses extremely vivid and memorably imagery. Rather than treating his topic in vague, abstract, or general terms, he creates highly specific images, as when the traveller describes a statue he has seen:
. . . “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert... 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 . . . (2-7)
- Shelley uses irony when he lets Ozymandias speak for himself by reporting the inscription carved on the dead king’s crumbled statue:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ (10-11)
- Immediately after reporting these proud and now almost ridiculous words, the traveller merely observes: “Nothing besides remains” (12). Rather than spelling out the lesson for us, the traveller, the speaker, and Shelley all let us draw the obvious conclusions for ourselves. The poem thus shows respect for its readers' intelligence.
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