What is the tone of Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem "Ozymandias"?

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The tone of Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem "Ozymandias" can be described as ironically solemn. This irony stems from the contrast between Ozymandias's once mighty kingdom and its current state of ruin, symbolized by a broken statue in an empty desert. The poem invites us to reflect solemnly on our mortality and the transience of human power. Moreover, the tone shifts from awe-inspiring to ironic and mocking, emphasizing the downfall of Ozymandias and the vanity of his grandeur.

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"Ozymandias" has a tone of ironic solemnity. The irony emerges from the juxtaposition of Ozymandias's inflated vision of his power and grandeur as ruler of a mighty kingdom and what survives of it today: a broken statue scattered on an empty desert. We are told that "nothing beside remains." The huge statue he had carved of himself to intimidate people is in pieces. No trace of his kingdom still exists beyond the shattered statue. No "works" survive to cause people to tremble and "despair."

Yet the irony runs deeper. The inscription on the broken statue reads

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'

The mighty should, in fact, look on Ozymandias's "works" and despair, not because of his fearsome power but because what they see shows he has no power left. His words are empty. The mighty might do well to remind themselves they too are not so powerful as they might believe. This could--and will--happen to them as well. 

The poem's irony is somber. We are asked not so much to laugh at the foibles of humans, a common target of irony, but to solemnly consider our own mortality and the vanity of human endeavors, our own similarity to Ozymandias, whose weakness is in his pride and inflated ego. Words such as "shattered," "sunk," and "lifeless" convey sobering images of the mortality we all share no matter how great we think we are.

We see as well that the only remnant of the former civilization comes from an artist, the sculptor of the statue, who "well those passions read/which still survive" in the "sneer" and "wrinkled lip" of the long-dead tyrant. Art, even shattered and fragile, seemingly outlives tyranny.

The end of the poem is quiet and solemn. We feel the emptiness and can experience the lonely echoes of the setting in the alliterations ("boundless and bare," "lone and level") and slow cadence of the lines, slowed by line breaks and commas:

Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare 

The lone and level sands stretch far away

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"Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley is written in the form of a sonnet, and the tone shifts from the first section to the second section.

The first eight lines, the octave, have a powerful tone, putting the narrator and thus the reader in awe of Ozymandias. Words like "vast," "frown," "command," and "sneer" show that Ozymandias was a great, powerful leader. "Passions" invites the reader to feel the passion that the massive stone sculpture inspired in the hearts of Ozymandias's subjects. Ozymandias had a "hand that mocked them and a heart that fed," showing that he was a tyrant.

The second part of the poem, the six lines that form the sestet, employ a shift in tone. Now the tone is ironic and mocking. "Nothing," "decay," "Wreck," "boundless," and "bare" create an image of the ruins of that once-monumental statue, insinuating the ruin of the memory of Ozymandias. It is ironic because the inscription reads, "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair," but when one looks upon Ozymandias's "works," there is nothing but a few shattered pieces of stone, with the sand stretching far away in every direction. In fact it is Ozymandias who was once mighty but would now despair to see how the world has forgotten him.

You can read more about "Ozymandias" in eNotes's study guide, by clicking here.

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Overall, the poem assumes a mocking tone. Percy Bysshe Shelley employs a number of techniques to emphasize the futility of man's desire to achieve immortality and he criticizes the arrogance and vanity of specifically those in power to assert their dominance and demand praise.

Firstly, Shelley indicates that the speaker's knowledge of the statue is not derived from personal contact with it, but is merely an anecdote shared by the speaker from information divulged by another who had actually viewed the statue. This in itself demeans the importance and value of the object, since the perception thereof is not based on a first-hand account but derived from the experience of a third party. As we all know, second-hand accounts are not very reliable and we mostly doubt their veracity. The irony is obvious: the one (Ozymandias) who had had his image chiseled in stone wished for it to be admired and appreciated by the viewer - in this instance the speaker is not the one who actually saw the statue - his perception of it is thus in doubt.

Secondly, the artist who sculpted the statue is given more praise for his great skill than the praise given to the image (or the one whom the image portrays). The sculptor 'well those passions read', whilst the image displayed a 'frown', 'wrinkled lip', 'and sneer of cold command'. This indicates a clear contrast. The diction conveys a negativity toward the one sculpted and is positive about the one who sculpted. 

Thirdly, Shelley indicates through imagery that the 'vast' statue has become almost nothing and has thus lost its importance, impact and value. The statue is 'trunkless', 'half-sunk', 'shatter'd'. It is a 'wreck' and has suffered 'decay'. The repeated use of such negative images emphasizes the idea that Ozymandias' desire to achieve everlasting fame, glory and admiration was foolish. This is further supported by the alliteration, 'boundless and bare' and 'lone and level'. The statue is surrounded by emptiness and nothingness, which add to its meaninglessness.

Finally, it is not only the speaker who mocks Ozymandias' pointless exercise in vanity, but also the sculptor: 'the hand that mocked them'. The sculptor has, through his creation, ridiculed Ozymandias by the manner in which he transferred his image to stone.   

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The tone (emotional, non-conscious impression, “flavor,”) of this poem is affected by the narrative structure Shelley chose to give it. Because the poem’s first-person narrator is not the actual story-teller, but is merely repeating the story of the traveler “from an antique land,” the metaphorical character of the anecdote is strengthened for the reader, because the poem’s narrator is passing the story along with a rhetorical or instructive motive, as is Shelley himself, so there are several layers of admonishments against false pride, boasting, self-importance, etc. The story itself has a tone of “lessons learned by travel and absorption of other cultures,” not merely travel-guide rhetoric but rather what can be gleaned from venturing into unfamiliar territory. Also, because the poem’s rhymes are non-intrusive, the tone is subtle and subliminal, as is the lesson to be learned. Finally, the rhythm of the beats of the poem suggest the “lone and level sands”, without feature but with a steady, almost monotonous level, a featureless horizon.

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