Revise for the AQA English Literature Paper 2 exam with Beyond’s “revise” blogs on Power and Conflict poetry. This blog explores Percy Shelley’s Ozymandias poem, focussing on:
- Ozymandias context
- Percy Bysshe Shelley facts
- Ozymandias structure
- Ozymandias analysis
‘Ozymandias’ was the Greek name given to Ramses II, one of the greatest pharaohs of Ancient Egypt.
In the early 19th century, when Shelley was writing poetry, Europeans became fascinated with Egyptian culture after Napoleon conquered Egypt and began transporting the great treasures of the Ancient Egyptians back to Europe.
Shelley and a friend learned of the acquisition by the British Museum of a massive statue of Ramses II. They decided to have a competition to see who could write the best poem about this statue.
- Ozymandias was the Greek name of Ramses II
- Egyptian culture was exotified by Europeans, so much so that important historical treasures soon made their way to Europe
- Having heard of the British Museum’s recent acquisition of a huge statue of Ramses II, Shelley and his contemporaries decided to write poems about it
Percy Bysshe Shelley Facts
Percy Shelley (1792 – 1822) was one of the leading poets of the Romantic movement in England.
He had a comfortable and affluent upbringing in rural England, the eldest son of a baronet and Whig Member of Parliament. He stood to inherit both his father’s title and a fortune when his father died.
Bullied and unhappy at school, Shelley became known as ‘Mad Shelley’ by his fellow students. He began a degree course at Oxford but was expelled after less than a year and soon eloped with a young woman called Harriet Westbrook.
Despite his upbringing, Shelley had unconventional political ideals and spent a great deal of time with reform thinkers of the day such as William Godwin, a well known philosopher.
Shelley felt the need for social and political change and he believed in atheism, vegetarianism and free love.
Despite having a young wife and child, Shelley fell in love with the 16-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the daughter of William Godwin and his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft (the campaigner for female emancipation).
The pair eloped and later, after his first wife’s suicide, Shelley and Mary Godwin married. The pair travelled through Europe to escape the gossip of society at home and settled for a time at Lake Geneva with Shelley’s friend, the poet Lord Byron. While there, Mary began the story that would eventually become ‘Frankenstein’.
Shelley travelled extensively in Europe. He never felt comfortable in England after the suicide of his first wife, Harriet.
On a fishing trip on 8th July 1822, near Livorno in Italy, Shelley was surprised by a sudden storm and drowned. His body was washed up onshore and cremated on the beach, in keeping with quarantine regulations. In Shelley’s pocket was a small book of Keats’ poetry (Keats was another young Romantic poet who died in Italy).
Byron and other friends attended the funeral and burning of Shelley’s body on the beach. The Tory newspaper, The Courier, celebrated his death with the text, “Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned, now he knows whether there is God or no.”
Percy Bysshe Shelley summary:
- 1792 – 1822
- Shelley was one of the leading poets of the Romantic movement in England
- Inherited his father’s title and fortune
- Named “Mad Shelley” by his peers and was bullied at school
- Shelley believed in atheism, vegetarianism and free love
- Shelley’s first wife committed suicide
- Shelley then eloped with the daughter of a close friend, Mary
- Shelley, Mary, and Lord Byron lived together for a time
- Mary wrote Frankenstein while living under these conditions
- On a fishing trip in 1822, Shelley drowned
- His body was cremated on the beach
- A newspaper, The Courier, celebrated his death by writing “Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned, now he knows whether there is God or no.”
Shelley’s Ozymandias poem is written in the first person. While Shelley often wrote about the beauties of nature, here he chooses to write about the ferocious forces of nature. Ozymandias, or Ramses II, was one of the greatest leaders of the Ancient Egyptian world. The people of his time would have thought of him as a ‘god on Earth’. Many massive statues were created in his honour and it is probable that the Egyptians themselves imagined that they would last forever.
The poet speaks directly to the reader about a ‘traveller’ he has met. The traveller has told him about a great, ruined statue in the desert. We get impressions of the statue and the man who built it.
- ‘whose frown and wrinkled lip’
- ‘sneer of cold command’
- ‘stamp’d on these lifeless things, the hand that mock’d them’
- ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings’
- ‘Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair!’
Shelley uses language throughout the poem that impresses us with the ruined state of the statue. When he describes the statue he uses the technique of personification (giving something that is not human the qualities or actions of a human). He describes the statue as though it has been alive at some point but is now dead and decaying.
The poem Ozymandias uses a Petrarchan sonnet form but this is often disrupted. The sonnet is a stylistic form in poetry. It originated in Italy and the term comes from the Italian sonneto or little poem, little song.
The poem had taken on its present form by the 13th century – a poem of 14 lines, with a strict rhyme scheme. There are a number of different types of sonnet but the sonnets of Percy Bysshe Shelley loosely follow the Petrachan form – this consists of an eight-line set that expresses an idea or problem and then a six-line set that advises a solution or resolution.
The ninth line of the sonnet is often a turning point for the ideas set out in the first part of the poem. Sometimes, the regular iambic pentameter rhythm or the regular ABAB CDCD rhyme scheme is interrupted in Shelley’s poems to indicate something (decay, change, weakened structure – as in Ozymandias).
Shelley’s Ozymandias poem has a typical turning point in the ninth line. Iambic pentameter is used throughout the poem but is disrupted and the rhyme scheme of a regular sonnet is also not followed here. Perhaps this reflects how the power and human achievements of the pharaoh in the poem have been destroyed by nature.
The poem is written directly for the reader. The poet speaks second-hand about the experience: it is actually a traveller he has met who has seen the statue for himself. The image of the statue is described and built up in sections until we can image the entire thing. The poem ends, not with a discussion of the greatness of the pharaoh, but with the image of the lonely desert where nature has reclaimed her place.
- Ozymandias is written as a Petrarchan sonnet
- The structure of Shelley’s Ozymandias poem changes to indicate weakened structure
- In the ninth line, the poem’s iambic pentameter is disrupted and the rhyme alters
- This change could indicate the destruction of the once-great pharaoh
- The statue is described in part until the full image is revealed to the reader
- the last image in Shelley’s poem is of the desert
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The theme of national identity can also be explored in the poem ‘Checking Out Me History’, ‘The Emigrée or ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. The theme of memory can also be explored in ‘Poppies’ and the theme of the power of nature can be found in ‘Ozymandias’ and ‘Storm on the Island’.
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