Ozymandias Essay

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”.


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 this world. 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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