“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.