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Ozymandias: Power and Conflict Analysis

Ozymandias was written by Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1817 and published in 1818. Shelley was a Romantic poet. The Romantics were concerned with issues such as the power of nature and the oppression of governments and other institutions.

Shelley wrote the poem after hearing that the British Museum had acquired a large fragment of the broken statue of the Egyptian pharaoh, Rameses II. The Greeks called him ‘Ozymandias’. Shelly views him as a cruel leader who enslaved people to build memorials for him. He imagined – incorrectly – that these would last forever.

Poem

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.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1818)

Poem Summary

The narrator meets a traveller from a country with a long history of civilisation. The traveller tells him about a statue that was discovered. The face and body of the statue are broken. However, it is possible to see a cruel sneer on the face. An inscription at the base of the statue reads:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings
Look on my works ye mighty and despair”

Surrounding this broken statue is nothing but sand.

The Poem’s Key Message

Shelley demonstrates how all human power is temporary. Ozymandias may have seemed all-powerful in his lifetime, but now his statue has disintegrated in the sands of the desert. It is the powers of time and neglect that have eroded Ozymandias’s statue, which highlights the impermanence of human endeavours compared to the enduring power of nature.

Language

  • Shelley describes the statue’s face to show Ozymandias’s cruelty. It has a “frown”, “wrinkled lip”, and “sneer of cold command”. These all point to a brutal and aggressive leader.
  • We also see his arrogance as he calls himself the “King of Kings” and tells other rulers to “despair” at his greatness.
  • The image of sand is important in the poem. The “decay” of the statue is surrounded by “sands” that “stretch far away”. Sand is often associated with time as it is used in an hourglass (an old-fashioned timing instrument). Therefore, the sand in the poem shows how time weakens all human power.

Structure

  • A framing device is used to narrate the poem. The narrator recalls what a “traveller from an ancient land” has told him, rather than having seen it himself. This makes Ozymandias seem like even more of a forgotten figure because he is only known by people in that land who have seen the broken statue.
  • The poem builds gradually with descriptions of the different parts of the statue. It climaxes with the dramatic words on the inscription. The pace then drops as we are told: “Nothing beside remains.” This shows how the statue and Ozymandias himself have now lost all significance.

Form

The poem is written in sonnet form. Sonnets are often love poems, so Shelley could have used the form here to demonstrate Ozymandias’s love for himself.

Themes

ThemeAnalysis
Individual powerShelley presents Ozymandias as a despot. This means he is a brutal leader who treats his citizens with cruelty. (Hitler and Stalin were despots from the 20th century.)

The use of “cold command” gives the image of someone who rules without empathy and punishes those who disobey his orders.  
PridePride can be a good quality if someone feels proud of their achievements. However, when it means that someone has an excessively high opinion of their own importance, it is often seen as a negative quality. Pride is one of the seven deadly sins in Christian teachings.

Ozymandias’s pride is demonstrated in the “King of Kings” title he gives himself. He also thinks other rulers should “despair” at his great achievements. His “sneer” implies that he believes himself superior to those he rules over. In the Bible, it is said: “Pride goeth before a fall”. We see this in Ozymandias as his pride is followed by being largely forgotten. His broken statue in the desert symbolises this.  
The power of natureAlthough the human power of Ozymandias is only temporary, the power of nature is shown to be permanent. Where there was once a human civilisation, a desert has now taken over. It is “boundless and bare” and “stretches far away”, showing how it has reclaimed the land once the human power has been lost.

Key quotes to learn

QuoteWhy is it important?
“sneer of cold command”.This demonstrates Ozymandias’s cruelty in the way that he ruled over others. He is “cold” and ruthless.
“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair”.Ozymandias’s pride is shown in his belief that other rulers will “despair” at his greatness.
“The lone and level sands stretch far away.”Nature has taken over the civilisation where Ozymandias once ruled. His power was temporary, whereas nature’s is permanent.

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