Ozymandias Themes

The three main themes in Ozymandias are the transience of glory, the illusion of power, and the vastness of nature.

  • The Transience of Glory: Ozymandias was renowned and powerful, the "King of Kings," but now he is long dead, and his "works"  have disappeared.
  • The Illusion of Power: Presumably Ozymandias had power once, but now it's gone, along with all evidence of it.
  • The Vastness of Nature: Against the power of Nature, humankind is nothing, and the forces of Nature have wrecked the statue of Ozymandias swept away all of his "works."

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Transience of Glory

The setting of Shelley's poem, a desert as described to the speaker, is symbolic of bleakness and emptiness. But evidently a great kingdom existed there at one time, as evidenced by the ruins of the eponymous king's image. So, readers are immediately told that although something or someone "great" once was there, now there is nothing but desolation. This is an "antique land." Whatever resulted in the ruins of the statue, the head severed from the "trunkless legs," it was obviously very long ago that this occurred, and the enormous stretch of time conveys that what happened in this antique land is a constant throughout human history, a repetitive phenomenon. But in that remote past, Ozymandias—the Greek name for the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses, or Ramses, II—was renowned and powerful, the "King of Kings." Now, he is long dead, and his "works," which in the inscription he enjoins the visitor to "look on with despair," have disappeared. Not only does nothing remain of what this king commanded to be built, but the statue itself has broken apart. Some of it has disappeared completely, given that the legs are "trunkless." The evidence is of a supreme leader whose legacy consists solely of a ruin, attesting to the transience of his self-declared glory and power. In this world, Shelley's message reads, nothing lasts; nothing has the power to sustain itself. Impermanence rules.

The Illusion of Power

The fate of Ozymandias leads one to ask what this king accomplished in his lifetime and for posterity. What the traveler has seen on the remaining visage is a "sneer of cold command." The phrase conveys something about the nature of "command": it's based on cruelty. In itself it gives the key to the wreckage of Ozymandias lying in the sand. Shelley's message is a paraphrase of the scriptural wisdom that those who live by the sword shall perish by the sword. The "frown" and "wrinkled lip" of the king also suggest the power the man held seems not to have achieved for him the happiness or fulfillment he might have expected. But what, Shelley is asking, is power? Presumably in his time this man possessed it, but now that it's gone, and that all evidence of it is absent as well, the significance or value of that power when it did exist is called into question.

In the view of Shelley and his generation, the "second wave" of Romantics, power was meaningless. They came of age during the Napoleonic wars, when the unlimited might of the anciens régimes of Europe was destroyed, as was Napoleon's own power when he was finally defeated in 1815. People looked back on over twenty years of violence and asked, what was the point of it all? Ozymandias and his destruction are a metaphor for the events of Shelley's own time. The power Ozymandias held, like that of Bonaparte, was something false, illusory. Or, when it did exist, it was probably not worth having, and those who do seek power over others are contemptible, the worst of mankind.

The Vastness of Nature

Perhaps the most striking feature of "Ozymandias" is the setting in which the traveler finds the statue's ruins. Though Shelley's description of it is brief, the significance of it is obvious, as the poem concludes:

. . . boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Shelley conveys both the enormity and, perhaps paradoxically, the monotony of the landscape. It is empty and it stretches on forever, in contrast to the impermanence of Ozymandias himself. It is not only that Nature is an immense power against which man is nothing, but that the physical bleakness of the desert is an analogue to the emptiness of the vast stretch of time between this ancient despot and the present. Nature is a vast force: the winds and sands have swept away all of Ozymandias's "works" as well as wrecking the iconic symbol of him the sculptor created. But in its infinite reach, Nature is, in some sense, shocking to the human who contemplates it, forcing us not only to acknowledge our powerlessness but to recognize how frightening the immensity and the endlessness of time and space are.

The Survival of Art

Shelley's subtext is arguably that art survives, even when men and their "power" do not. Everything else has disappeared, but a piece of sculpture, though a ruin, still exists in this vast empty space devoid of anything else. Were it not for the artist who created that statue, there would be no evidence at all of Ozymandias.

The concept that art endows its subject with meaning is a trope that has been a constant of literary history. With a kind of transferred pride, Shelley has the traveler note that

. . . its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things . . .

By depicting the tyrant, the artist has demonstrated his superiority to him. Shelley identifies with the artist of the remote past. It is not merely that an individual artwork survives but that the practice of the arts over the millennia has been maintained. Shelley's poem itself is an analogue to the statue. Just as the sculptor of antiquity created a "record" of his time, Shelley memorialized his own age. "Ozymandias" can be seen as a symbol of the transitory nature of power and command in the early nineteenth century, when much of the old order was swept aside by Napoleon, and Napoleon himself was swept away, just like Ozymandias.

Themes and Meanings

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“Ozymandias” is at first glance a sonnet about the transitory nature of life and its pretensions of fame and fortune. The decaying, ancient statue bears witness to the fact that the pursuit of power and glory for their own sakes are not only fleeting, but they are also illusory, unworthy ambitions even within the lifetime of their seekers.

The nineteenth century was filled with “discoveries” of ancient landscapes, built upon a historiography of “great men,” who were to elicit the attention and admiration of a generation of scholars and writers. Shelley chose, however, to poke holes in the “great man” theory of history, questioning its validity and its rationality.

The poem also works on another level, however—as a candid, poignant confession by the artist that his work is also ephemeral, and that as style, manner, and fashion change, so do reputation and honor. Such a confessional spirit was particularly appropriate for Shelley and other Romantics, that clan of “rebel spirits”—among them William Blake; George Gordon; Lord Byron; John Keats; Samuel Taylor Coleridge; and William Wordsworth.

This new generation of poets flouted tradition, inventing their own vocabularies, subject matters, and poetic form, and generally laboring to raise the poet’s consciousness of his own imagination to an unprecedented level. “Ozymandias” exemplifies both in theme and in execution these “rebellious” notions.

Often, the poet himself was the topic and focus of his poetry, rather than the grander themes of man and God or the courtship of ladies and gentlemen. Audiences for the first time were confronted with the artist’s “personality,” and not only his work. Autobiography, not history, was to become the focal point of literary endeavor—and literary criticism.

The Romantics revitalized the craft of poetry in the nineteenth century, rescuing it from the narrow constraints of “classicism” built upon elevated language, artificial form, and exaggerated dependence on tradition. The price paid for this departure was the risk of alienating themselves from public taste and private virtue. The Romantics, Shelley chief among them, constructed their own “traditions” in various manifestos about the components, meaning, and social utility of poetry, even offering advice about how their poetry should be interpreted.

More than that, Shelley, in works such as Prometheus Unbound (1820) and A Defence of Poetry (1840), attempted to create a public persona for the poet as an arbiter of morality, genius, and political order. Thus, the Romantic, as exemplified in Shelley himself, was peculiarly subject to the rather pretentious self-promotion of his vocation—not unlike the wizened Ozymandias of his sonnet.

The ancient king’s narcissism, his relentless declarations of immortality and supremacy, might serve as warning also to the artist whose folly may lead him to similar vanity. Read this way, “Ozymandias” is a sober exhortation to poets and politicians alike to foster realistic assessments of their influence and worth; the disposition to make truth serve the selfish ends of vainglorious men is a theme of history Shelley discerned well in his own time and attempted to expose in his poetry. In that regard, “Ozymandias” remains a powerful antidote to artistic pretensions and political hypocrisy.

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