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“Ozymandias” Analysis

“Ozymandias”

By Percy Bysshe Shelley

(1792-1822)

 

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History:

Percy Bysshe Shelley was an English Romantic poet who rebelled against English politics and conservative values. (source) His sonnet, “Ozymandias”, was written in 1817 during a friendly competition with another friend and poet, Horace Smith. The sonnet tells the story of Egypt’s great pharaoh, Ozymandias, or other wise known as Ramses II the great. “Ozymandias” describes the decline of the once powerful and vast empire. Shelley’s main inspiration for “Ozymandias” was his strong hatred for tyranny. It is thought that the poem alludes to England’s modern rule. (source) Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote “Ozymandias” to forewarn Britain of what their “empire” could become if the authoritarian rule continued. (source) Ironically, Shelley’s father was a member of the British Parliament. (source)Ramses’ II now inexistent empire described in “Ozymandias”, is the result of his refusal to answer his hero calling.

The Poem:

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.

Audio-Visual Podcast:

 

Analysis:

Shelley’s poem describes the remains of Ozymandias’ or Ramses’ II Empire. The poem begins with the author recalling a time when he met a traveler from an “antique” land. Antique is a symbol for the ancient land of Egypt. In the line,” two vast and trunkless legs of stand in the desert an enjambment is used. Imagery is used to paint a picture of the remnants of Ramses’ II Egyptian empire. “Two trunkless legs of stone” are the only remains of a stone statue modeled after Ramses that was once 57ft tall. (source) There is no longer a body or a torso, only two legs standing on a pedestal. Next to the trunkless legs, half sunk into the sand and shattered, is what used to be the statue’s face. The face is described to have a “frown and wrinkled lip and a “sneer of cold command”. These descriptions are symbols of Ramses’ II personality. From the frown and sneer on his face, readers can conclude that he was an angry and fierce ruler. Shelley uses an anastrophe in the phrase “tell that its sculptor well those passions read”. Through the inversion of the normal word order, Shelley tells readers that the sculptor was able to capture Ramses II personality and who he truly was through the statue’s facial expressions.

In the line: “The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed” the author uses alliteration with the letter “t”. Also, Shelley uses the word mock as a pun. In this case, mock is meant to mean both created and ridiculed. In the phrase, “the heart that fed” the heart symbolizes Ramses’ II emotions and passions and fed is used as a metaphor, because the heart did not literally feed the emotions and passions to the statue. (source)

Shelley then goes on to describe what is engraved on the pedestal. “My name is Ozymandias King of Kings look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” When broken down the Greek name Ozymandias has an interesting meaning. The root Ozy means air and the root Mandias means to rule. So, Ozymandias literally means “ruler of air”. This is ironic because there is truly nothing left of Ozymandias’ empire but air. This name mocks Ramses II and ridicules his rule and works. King of Kings is an allusion to Jesus and symbolizes how important Ramses II thought himself to be. Through the engraving, Ramses II dared someone to challenge him and his works. However, whoever dared to challenge him would end up defeated and hopeless.

In the lines, “Round the decay of that colossal wreck boundless and bare, Shelley uses another enjambment. However, the true irony of the whole situation is that nothing remains. All that is left of Ramses supposed great empire is a decaying and shattered statue. The engraving on the pedestal no longer applies, because his works are vanished and destroyed, he is no longer the “King of Kings”.

 The last line “the lone and level sands stretch far away” really captures the irony of the sonnet. The once large empire is now just an empty desert, with nothing more than sand for miles and miles. Apart from the destroyed statue there is no other sign that in this desert, there was once a huge and powerful empire.

“Ozymandias” fits with the refusal stage because Ramses II refused his call to be a hero. He became too focused on the present and the difficulties it presented rather than looking to the future as a series of deaths and rebirths. Because of this, his adventure became a negative one. During his reign, Ramses built a worldly empire; in fact, he built more monuments and temples than any other Egyptian pharaoh. (source) However his empire became a “house of death” and completely collapsed and vanished.

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