Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley: Critical Appreciation

The poem Ozymandias is a satiric poem intended to convey the message that power and pride are vain and temporary possessions that make human beings arrogant and egotistical but time will treat everything and everyone equally. The situation of the poem is one in which the speaker is narrating to us what a "traveler from an antique land" had told him.

P. B. Shelley (1792-1822)

The traveler had described a broken statue of an ancient tyrant to this speaker. The present speaker retells us the story in the exact words of the original reporter: the whole poem is in the form of a single stretch of direct speech. The story quietly satirizes the so-called great ruler as nothing great in front of the "level sands" of time.

The poem develops only logically as the writer turns and twists the narration, satirizing the tyrant, specifically, and also suggesting the general theme of the vanity of power and pride. As the traveler had told this speaker, there were two "vast and trunkless legs of stone" in the midst of a desert. As the other details clearly reveal, the legs belonged to a statue of some ancient tyrant who had an empire with its capital at this place. Here was one of his enormous statues under which he had ordered the artist to write the words: "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings… Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair". This suggests that the tyrant used to take it for granted that his name would be immortal in an everlasting empire of his, and therefore, the people would look at the statue and his "works" - whatever it means - and 'despair' out of awe, amazement and fear. In the letters carved on the pedestal, he has also addressed to "ye Mighty", meaning 'powerful' kings of the future; all of whom he had supposed would be much inferior to him. But the traveler looked around and saw nothing other than an endless stretch of sand, nothing of the "my works" at which even the mighty was supposed to look and despair!

In the course of the development of the narration of the strange story, the traveler's speech is handled in such a way as to suggest many other points of satire and other messages. The way the traveler has described the shattered statue and the surrounding must be discussed in some detail in order to unravel some of the major thematic ideas in the poem. Near the trunkless pair of legs, there was a broken face with a frown on it. This and the wrinkled lip showed the "sneer of cold command" to the traveler. It seems that the sculptor knowingly represented these features on the face to tell the future generations how cruel and inhuman this tyrant was. These indicators have survived longer than the empire and even the whole form of the stone statue. Evil name does outlive one's life or kingdom. The maker of the statue understood the meaning of the artificial facial expression that the tyrant puts on in order to arouse fear in the people. He must have also read the wickedness and cruelty on his face. The (hand of the) artist mocked the egomania of the conceited tyrant, because he understood the reality of life, being not blinded by power and possession. He put his heart to make the statue, representing perfectly not only what the tyrant must have told him to but also a truth that fooled the arrogant ruler.

The choice of words has played almost all the tricks discussed above. The traveler being from an "antique" or the ancient land suggests that the empire was an old one. In fact, we do not know the name Ozymandias as a popular one - we don't really care, if it is not the name of a "human" and 'proper' human being! The word vast suggests that the statue was really big, because even the legs without the main trunk are vast. They are being made of stone tells us that even a stone is perishable, not to mention fragile human beings, be they 'great' barbaric tyrants or small common people. The remaining are just a shattered 'visage' (or face) and the "passions" (or feelings) that can be interpreted even now. It is ironical that the signs of inhumanity survive when almost everything else for which he expressed his pride are gone. The traveler is like Eiron in Greek dramas in the way he uses tearing understatement. After reading the words on the pedestal, he looks around as if he believed the tyrant's words that presume the continuity of his empire, his name, his deeds and misdeeds, and his status. But nothing is seen, besides the wreckage of the statue. The "level sands" is a symbol of equality of treatment of everything and everyone by time, and the laws of nature. Nothing is immortal, not the least corporeal possessions and power. If at all, bad name and loathing remains if one has given pain and injustice to others.

The order of words in this poem suggests that the poem is fairly old. The poet has also changed the order of words for the sake of rhyming. Besides, he has changed word order for putting certain words at the end for throwing them into prominence, as in: "frown and… tell that its sculptor well those passions read", instead of the normal order as: "tell that its sculptor read well those passions". There is the usual iambic meter suitable for narration, but with a lot of variations and irregularities that match the turns and twists the course of the narration. The rhyming scheme is: ababb cdced cfef. But the imperfect or feminine rhyming as is sand/command, stone/frown, appear/despair are clear indications of the irony in the poem. Moreover, these misrhymngs come at the right times when the vanity of the tyrant is to be exposed

One of the unique techniques employed by this poem is its "not quite telling the attitude" but projecting the meanings in the images and other details selected to the intended defect. The present reporter never explicitly tells us what he means, but he makes it clear from the images. The humility with which the objective details are presented also satirizes the tyrant even more. This is a sonnet because there are fourteen lines and a certain pattern of rhyme. But the rhyming scheme is original, neither like in Shakespearean sonnet nor like in the original Italian sonnet. Like in a sonnet the first part consisting of eight lines (octave) presents the description and the next six lines present the thematic satiric materials.

The poem is a P.B. Shelley’s famous sonnet, one in which the revolutionary Romantic poet has expressed his hatred of tyranny, and this is related to the humanistic revolutionary theory of Shelley. But the poem is understandable and 'great' enough in its expression, theme and artistry.

The structureless structure of the poem - narration followed by direct report containing a description and neutral comment which is again followed by a report of the inscription on the pedestal and ending with a bitterly satiric but cunningly cold comment on the situation - such a structure of the poem, which parallels the destruction and absurd end of the power and empire of the now nameless tyrant, is something I am always struck by, whenever I read this poem. The fact that the poet has chosen an obscure and infamous tyrant is a significant irony that the tyrant's presumption of immortal fame was a petty illusion!

The humility of the traveler who quietly makes a piercing satire on the so-called “great" emperor is memorable in the poem. This is really good poem because it has a concrete surface and also a depth of symbolic meaning. Symbolically, it represents the vanity of human pride of possession and power, like the poem “On the Vanity of Earthly Greatness". The economy of its wording and the aptness of the images are as striking as the lesson this poem teaches. I feel like mocking the existing tyrants and had rulers of the world who rule the people with force and fear rather than love and compassion.

Cite this Page!

Sharma, K.N. "Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley: Critical Appreciation." BachelorandMaster, 3 July 2014, bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/ozymandias-critical-appreciation.html.