Revision Shots – Ozymandias by Percy Byssche Shelley



Firstly, let’s get the question of the title out of the way. Some say oh-zee-man-die-ass, some say oh-zee-man-dias and some say ozzy-man-dias. We’ll be going with the latter, because it scans better when you read the poem.

It’s written by Percy Bysshe Shelley, a Romantic poet. (Remember, when we say Romantic, we mean that he was interested in the power of nature, human emotions and the imagination.) Shelley was a bit of a character – he held radical political views, was an atheist, a vegetarian, and believed that people should just sleep around with whomever they wanted. All of these things may not sound that controversial to us, but in the early nineteenth century, they were Big Deals.

The Lowdown

Way back in 1817, the British Museum acquired the fragment of a statue of Rameses II, an ancient Egyptian pharaoh also known as Ozymandias. Shelley and his friend, Horace Smith, decided to have a competition to write a sonnet about the statue. Shelley penned his attempt over Christmas – it’s a Petrarchan sonnet, which means it’s got fourteen lines and follows a strict structure – more on that later.

Both men published their poems in 1818 – it’s worth reading Smith’s attempt, though it isn’t a patch on Shelley’s sonnet. The funny thing is, neither man saw the statue before writing the poem – it didn’t actually arrive at the British Museum in London until 1821. You can still see it there today.

1:16-2:43 – What’s it all about?

The poem’s told from a first-person perspective, but it’s detached from the actual experience of viewing the statue. The narrator explains that he met a traveller from an “antique” land. This doesn’t mean he’s been searching for vintage furniture – antique just means ancient here.

Then, at line two, the poem starts reporting the words of the traveller, and that’s it – we don’t meet the narrator again. Why is this? Well, it could be that Shelley’s being honest – he hasn’t seen the statue in the desert himself. But it could also be that he’s wanting to create a real sense of wonder about this place – it’s a land so far away and mystical that he hasn’t visited it himself.

So, what has the traveller seen? Well, he describes “two vast and trunkless legs of stone”, a “shattered visage” and a “pedestal”. So we have the legs and face of the statue lying in the sand, next to the base of the statue. It’s a “colossal wreck”.

The interesting bit, though, is the personality of the ruler who’s been immortalised in stone. The traveller describes “a frown” and a “sneer of cold command” (listen to that cutting alliteration!). We get the impression that this was a cruel and haughty ruler. Finally, there’s the words carved in the base: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings, look on my works ye mighty, and despair!”

This is where the whole point of the poem kicks in: Ozymandias was clearly a proud and arrogant leader, but look at him now – reduced to a pile of rubble in the middle of the desert. The poem ends with the image of the “lone and level sands” that “stretch far away” – the great Ozymandias is alone and insignificant.

2:44-4:19 – Dig deep

Let’s look at the poem in a bit more depth. Remember we were talking about it being a Petrarchan sonnet? Well, that’s important cos it tells us about how the poem’s narrative unfolds. The first eight lines, or octave, tell us about the broken statue – that’s the main idea of the poem.

The next six lines, or sestet, resolve or develop that idea; that’s where we learn of the king’s arrogance, and how inconsequential he seems now that time and the elements have destroyed his great monument. The poem uses iambic pentameter – that means each line has five lots of unstressed and then stressed syllables.

This meter is often used in classic poetry to give a natural rhythm – it’s actually very close to how we usually speak.

Now for the language. There’s lots of sibilance (that’s repetitions of the s and shhh sounds), which give it a hushed and reverential tone. It’s also worth noting the alliteration to describe the “boundless and bare”, “lone and level” sands, which makes them sound immense and unending.

Shelley’s vocabulary is also clever. He juxtaposes two key ideas: the huge size and power of the statue, with words like “vast” and “colossal”, and the idea of ruin and weakness, with words like “shattered” and “decay”.

He weaves the two concepts together in a sentence which lasts for the majority of the poem – until we get to line twelve, where he simply states: “Nothing beside remains”. This sentence of three short words delivers a punch to the reader cos it’s so different from what has gone before: there’s no fancy words or phrasing here – just cold, hard reality. Ozymandias is dead and forgotten, swept away by time and nature.

4:20-5:03 – That’s a wrap

We’ve sped through the poem and there’s just time to summarise our main points:

  1. Ozymandias is a Petrarchan sonnet by the Romantic poet, Percy Shelley.
  2. It’s the reported speech of a traveller who found a ruined statue of Ozymandias, also known as Rameses II, in the desert.
  3. The statue is broken into pieces, although its inscription is still readable, declaring its subject the “king of kings”.
  4. But Shelley is showing us that for all his greatness, Ozymandias has not survived the ravages of time and the elements.
  5. The poet uses a range of language techniques to juxtapose these ideas of power and ruin.

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