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Ozymandias Themes

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...

(The entire section is 1,429 words.)