‘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.
Percy Bysshe Shelley
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
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.”
‘Ozymandias’ is a poem 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!’
The poem ‘Ozymandias’ uses a Petrarchan sonnet form but this is often disrupted.
The Sonnet Form
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’).
The 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.
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.
How effective is this technique here?
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