Analysis Essays On Ozymandias

English Literature II

April 8th, 2007

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: “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,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear:

`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

Ozymandias

At first glance, the poem “Ozymandias” by Percy Byssch Shelley is nothing like the romantic poems of the time. It seems harsh and manmade — not natural and reflective of the beauty of nature. On the outside, any bundle of words may seem just like words. Reading more into their deeper meaning and on the inside of how the words work together reveals what the writer is trying to illuminate. Shelley does this flawlessly— thus exposing the true meaning behind these harsh words. The song he creates delivers a theme of natures power and extravagance over the power of King Ozymandias. Nature and the creators within — like sculptors and writers — will remain to be ones outlasting great palaces and kings with new ideas. By looking at the diction, imagery and form of this seemingly unromantic poem, Shelleys theme is truly exposed.

Shelley chooses words of nature that correspond to strength. Those words can seem harsh, but they have a meaning, which really elevates nature in a more subtle way. The words that stand out as natural from the start are “stone” which is hard and sturdy, and “desert” and “sand which are vast and huge and everywhere. Here, a traveler from an antique land is referring to the king’s remains of an old palace. Ironically these stones are the only things that remain of this palace, and much more elevated than what is left of the king himself. These stones contrast to the mask of the king. While the mask represents man-made and power lost, “shattered” and “half-sunk,” the trunk-less stones continue to overpower, as they stand in the vast desert. The desert is bigger than any palace could be, and the sand — which holds the only remaining part of this king — can bury it in a second. Other words in the poem are very important and well chosen, too. They contrast with the natural words and bringing out more of the theme. Using the word “visage” seems extraneous. Why not just say mask, if that’s what it is? Visage is defined as “somebody’s face or facial expression.” by Encarta. Therefore visage is a perfect word, because it represents Ozymandias’ own face shattered in the sand, not just a mask. And a face can define a person and represent their entire being. Shelley goes on to actually describe Ozyamandias’ facial expression. The “passions” on this mask are ironically placed on “lifeless things.” All of these words and details show the downfall of this king, whose face is destroyed and even his record of living ceases to hold any power in thisworld. This diction seen in this poem, raises the ideas of the theme, involving the g-d-like powers of nature that will bring down Ozymandias.

Nature, the last words of Ozymandias and the remains, all are working images — which Shelley delightfully uses to further theme of the poem. Again we see that the images of nature are associated with strength and endlessness. The stones standing in the desert with the sand sucking in the visage, is the image of a greater palace than the one Ozymandias made him self. “The lone and level sands stretch far away.” This line shows that even though nature has a great palace, it can still be “down to earth” and stand alone, humble and “level.” It contrasts to the great arrogance shown in the performance of Ozymadias, shown on the broken mask: “And on the pedestal these words appear: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” (line…) Quite perfectly, on the pedestal — or platform — the words represent the air and fluff they hold — [and] they are full of themselves. The way these words are placed, and what they are placed around adds irony and more meaning to the images they portray. Ozymandias describes himself as “king of kings,” to which one would look on his works and see how great they are — and give up. King of kings, directing the reader to look on his works and have no hope for their own future, when it is apparent that…Another example of use of imagery and placement of words around it is seen in the description of the mask. The images of the mask and its features are surrounded by the lighter images of nature and the process of the sculptor, putting emphasizing on the harshness of Ozymandias’ true qualities, seen in his face. [And} again, the image of Ozymandias’ statement is followed thereafter by the truth of what is left of his palace: “Nothing beside remains: round the decay/ Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare.” “Decay” denotes natural rot and decomposition, where nature leaves the palace ironically huge — but a huge, boundlessly bare wreck.

Finally, the form and shape of the poem help explain the theme as well. As each word is affected by the ones around it, each image and idea helps move along other ideas, ultimately bringing the poem to an end. But since these things are not on wheels, what pushes them along?  The rhyme scheme. When one line rhymes with another, however far out the ideas are from each other, they are automatically related by their similar words and sounds. When the whole poem rhymes with different lines within, it is all connected — just like a song is connected by notes, or a painting by colors. Also this form is seen in everyday life. The sun comes and goes each day and life has a routine even though it may appear the opposite. Finding the patterns that drive life can be complicated, but once you find them life seems to have more understanding, just like in Shelley’s poem. The poem drives the story of palaces lost and made, nature being the true, great and humble king that it is. Just like the rising and setting of the sun, always happening while life goes on — Ozymandias is just a player in the scheme of nature’s plan

Even within the poem, the sculptor demonstrates form. He read the passions of the king and with “The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed,” (line 8) he “stamp’d” and formed the “visage.” Shelley read the theme of nature, which is a boundless creator of everything existing in the world, yet still humble. Even the “king of kings” will be outlasted by the “lone and level deserts.”  This poem seems to describe many different aspects — from a traveler telling a story, to a mask, to the colossal decay in the huge desert. But reading it with the rhyming form, the ideas unite. They come together and create a story, and one can see the underlying theme that is also within the making of the poem itself. Shelley is the creator who isn’t mentioned in his own poems but is represented by his ideas, which will outlast the king of kings.  His essence, like the sculptor in the mask and the king in his words (however untrue and ironic), will remain tied to “Ozymandias,” forever.

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The first-person poetic persona states that he met a traveler who had been to “an antique land.” The traveler told him that he had seen a vast but ruined statue, where only the legs remained standing. The face was sunk in the sand, frowning and sneering. The sculptor interpreted his subject well. There also was a pedestal at the statue, where the traveler read that the statue was of “Ozymandias, King of Kings.” Although the pedestal told “mighty” onlookers that they should look out at the King’s works and thus despair at his greatness, the whole area was just covered with flat sand. All that is left is the wrecked statue.

Analysis

"Ozymandias" is a fourteen-line, iambic pentameter sonnet. It is not a traditional one, however. Although it is neither a Petrarchan sonnet nor a Shakespearean sonnet, the rhyming scheme and style resemble a Petrarchan sonnet more, particularly with its 8-6 structure rather than 4-4-4-2.

Here we have a speaker learning from a traveler about a giant, ruined statue that lay broken and eroded in the desert. The title of the poem informs the reader that the subject is the 13th-century B.C. Egyptian King Ramses II, whom the Greeks called “Ozymandias.” The traveler describes the great work of the sculptor, who was able to capture the king’s “passions” and give meaningful expression to the stone, an otherwise “lifeless thing.” The “mocking hand” in line 8 is that of the sculptor, who had the artistic ability to “mock” (that is, both imitate and deride) the passions of the king. The “heart” is first of all the king’s, which “fed” the sculptor’s passions, and in turn the sculptor’s, sympathetically recapturing the king’s passions in the stone.

The final five lines mock the inscription hammered into the pedestal of the statue. The original inscription read “I am Ozymandias, King of Kings; if anyone wishes to know what I am and where I lie, let him surpass me in some of my exploits.” The idea was that he was too powerful for even the common king to relate to him; even a mighty king should despair at matching his power. That principle may well remain valid, but it is undercut by the plain fact that even an empire is a human creation that will one day pass away. The statue and surrounding desert constitute a metaphor for invented power in the face of natural power. By Shelley’s time, nothing remains but a shattered bust, eroded “visage,” and “trunkless legs” surrounded with “nothing” but “level sands” that “stretch far away.” Shelley thus points out human mortality and the fate of artificial things.

The lesson is important in Europe: France’s hegemony has ended, and England’s will end sooner or later. Everything about the king’s “exploits” is now gone, and all that remains of the dominating civilization are shattered “stones” alone in the desert. Note the use of alliteration to emphasize the point: “boundless and bare”; “lone and level.”

It is important to keep in mind the point of view of “Ozymandias.” The perspective on the statue is coming from an unknown traveler who is telling the speaker about the scene. This helps create a sense of the mystery of history and legend: we are getting the story from a poet who heard it from a traveler who might or might not have actually seen the statue. The statue itself is an expression of the sculptor, who might or might not have truly captured the passions of the king. Our best access to the king himself is not the statue, not anything physical, but the king’s own words.

Poetry might last in a way that other human creations cannot. Yet, communicating words presents a different set of problems. For one thing, there are problems of translation, for the king did not write in English. More seriously, there are problems of transcription, for apparently Shelley’s poem does not even accurately reproduce the words of the inscription.

Finally, we cannot miss the general comment on human vanity in the poem. It is not just the “mighty” who desire to withstand time; it is common for people to seek immortality and to resist death and decay. Furthermore, the sculptor himself gets attention and praise that used to be deserved by the king, for all that Ozymandias achieved has now “decayed” into almost nothing, while the sculpture has lasted long enough to make it into poetry. In a way, the artist has become more powerful than the king. The only things that “survive” are the artist’s records of the king’s passion, carved into the stone.

Perhaps Shelley chose the medium of poetry in order to create something more powerful and lasting than what politics could achieve, all the while understanding that words too will eventually pass away. Unlike many of his poems, “Ozymandias” does not end on a note of hope. There is no extra stanza or concluding couplet to honor the fleeting joys of knowledge or to hope in human progress. Instead, the traveler has nothing more to say, and the persona draws no conclusions of his own.

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