"Ozymandias" Themes Essay
The message or theme of the poem of "Ozymandias" is that man is insignificant and his efforts are vain when compared to the forces of time and nature. Shelly expertly uses diction in the poem to portray important ideas. By encompassing time and nature into a theme Shelley brings a divine sense to the poem.
To consider the issue of the power of time and nature, the poet has the narrator reporting on a meeting with a traveler from 'an antique land' or Egypt, who told of seeing in the desert, the remains of a vast statue. Only the legs remained standing. The trunk was missing and the shattered face lay half buried in the sand, he told that the sculptor had skillfully captured the 'frown, the wrinkled lip, and sneer' on the 'shattered visage' through 'passions well read.' The importance of this traveler is that of symbolism. The traveler symbolizes the power that 'Ozymandias' has lost in his death. In health he was one of the most powerful people alive but now it takes a wandering traveler to spread a tale of the once great king. The power of nature is well represented by this part of the poem also. 'Ozymandias' told his subjects to 'look on my works; ye Mighty, and despair!' however, thanks to the power of nature there are barely and works left to look upon at all, let alone despair upon! It can be seen that nature has destroyed his works in the quotes, 'shattered visage' and 'sand, half sunk.' Thus the major theme of the...
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JUST after Christmas in 1817 Percy Bysshe Shelley, then 25, sat down to write a poem. This was not, of course, unusual. He had spent most of the year doing the same, often floating round in a small skiff on the Thames or perched in Bisham wood, near Marlow, to bring to birth his enormous mythical-French-revolution poem, “The Revolt of Islam”. By contrast, this one was a doddle. It took up one page of the same notebook: a page previously, or subsequently, covered with elementary sums and blots. Across the top of the page run the words:
My name is Ozymandias—King of Kings
This has become, perhaps, the most famous line in Shelley, though it was not his own; the one everyone knows and bursts into unprompted, though they may barely have heard of the poet himself. The sonnet that grew out of it was included in Palgrave’s Golden Treasury in 1861 and, since then, has made most anthologies of English verse. It is, by general consent, a great poem. Shelley would probably have been mildly miffed by its success; he was much more keen to fire up the public with his longer works. He would also, perhaps, have been surprised.
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 lips, 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.”—
The origins of “Ozymandias” were humble: a playful contest with a friend, Horace Smith, a jolly London poet-stockbroker, who was staying with Shelley at Marlow. A mutual friend, Leigh Hunt, the young editor of the radical Examiner magazine, liked to organise sonnet competitions; 15 minutes was the standard time allowed. (The next February Hunt set one up between Shelley, John Keats and himself. The topic was “The Nile”; the two poets dashed off theirs in style, while Hunt laboured on his until two in the morning.) Shelley’s poem and Smith’s were published in short succession in the Examiner the next year, Smith modestly regretting their proximity. Indeed, though his effort got better towards the end, it was hard to get straight-faced past the first two lines:
In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg…
The Muse had plainly dawdled. Shelley’s start was rocky, too. He got hung up first on “pedestal”, a tricky word to fit into a metre (“There stands by Nile a lone single pedestal”). Then he was bothered by the material the trunkless legs were made of (“marble/grey/brown”). A “sultry mist” crept in, distracting him for a while. Then he attributed a “gathered frown” to one of the legs. But oddly, on the recto of the page (Shelley having typically started off on the verso), the whole thing is written out in fair copy, as if it has effortlessly formed in his head.
Probably it had. Much ink has been spilled discussing exactly where Shelley’s image, and the vaunting proclamation, came from, but possible sources were not far to seek. The most likely was Diodorus Siculus in his “Library of History”, which Shelley was reading around that time. Diodorus, writing in the first century BC, relayed Hecataeus’s description of the black-stone statue when it was standing complete in its temple in Thebes 300 years before. It was, said Hecataeus, the largest statue in Egypt; its foot alone was “more than seven cubits”, or ten and a half feet long. Diodorus, who had never seen it, straightforwardly called it “Ozymandias”, recorded the proclamation on the pedestal and said that this funerary temple “seems to exceed all others not only in the vast scale of its expense, but also in the genius of its builders.” It was not, however, ruined: the black stone contained “not a crack, not a flaw” in his day.
Shelley was probably also influenced, therefore, by an account of Thomas Legh’s “Narrative of a Journey in Egypt and the Country beyond the Cataracts” in the Quarterly Review for October 1816. This related that despite the proud words (which it repeated) on the colossal statue, no trace, save perhaps one “prostrate fragment”, now remained. Some pages on, however, and much deeper into Egypt, a Mr Banks had discovered an even bigger statue buried up to its shoulders in sand. Standing upon the tip of its ear, he could just reach to the middle of its forehead, from which he calculated that the length of the head was 12 feet (3.7 metres), and the height of the whole thing probably 84 feet, “far exceeding that of the supposed statue of the ‘King of Kings’.”
The King of Kings, though, was the one visitors wanted to see, when they had braved the broiling heat and terrifying emptiness of the desert to get so far. Several 18th-century travel books, such as Pococke’s “Description of the East” (1743) and Vivant Denon’s “Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte” (1802), contained engravings of a toppled and scattered colossus in Thebes that might have been Ozymandias. Denon, with his French sniffiness, pronounced the style of the statue “mediocre” but the execution perfect. He also noted that because the coiffure was broken, it was impossible to tell whether the subject was a king or a god. But he had measured it: 25 feet across the shoulders, and 75 feet in height. The wonderful name had caught on; tourists from all over Europe, he noted, had carved their own names and remarks, in many languages, on what they supposed was left of him.
Shelley’s fallen tyrant departed from any of these. His legs stood upright, whereas the original statue was sitting, and the ruin was lying down. The ruin lay on its face, so there was no possibility of seeing those “wrinkled lips” and that “sneer of cold command”. Fallen buildings lay all round it, too, where Shelley’s poem had “nothing beside” the boundless desert sands.
But poets had their privilege, he once said coyly; they could imagine whatever they liked. This seems to be what he had done, from an imagination peopled with sneering tyrants ever since he was a boy. The “vast and trunkless legs” could as well belong to the famously corpulent Prince Regent, holding lavish banquets in Carlton House while the poor scraped and starved; the “sneer of cold command” would suit any of the raging, gorging, hell-hound-loosing rulers depicted in “Queen Mab”, Shelley’s radical and youthful outpouring of 1813. Shelley had sculpted Ozymandias’s face himself, shattered it with whoops of glee, rubbed it in its own pride (“king” always being an obscenity as far as he was concerned) and placed it in the wilderness, both moral and physical, in which such men belonged.
In any case, the “real” Ozymandias too was a stock tyrant; or so it seemed. No other writer of antiquity mentioned him. The stone reliefs Diodorus associated with him, and the buildings around him, appeared to be the mortuary-temple complex of Ramesses II, otherwise known as the Younger Memnon. “Ozymandias” may have been a corruption of part of his royal name. It was Ramesses II, ruler of Upper Egypt for 67 years in the 13th century BC, who had defeated the Hittites, the Nubians and the Canaanites, hugely expanded the bounds of Egypt, and built Thebes into a city of 100 gates, many covered in gold and silver. He revelled in colossal statues, erecting more than any other Egyptian king, and it was he who had declared, in words less rhythmical than Shelley made them, “Should any man seek to know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works.”
As it happened, as Shelley and Smith were scribbling their competing sonnets, Ramesses II was on his way to London. The top half of one of the statues of him at Thebes (though not the one described by Diodorus, which still lies in situ toppled and mutilated) had been dragged, on trolleys and with palm-fibre ropes, as far as the bank of the Nile opposite Luxor, and now waited only for a boat to transport it the rest of the way. The boat would need to be substantial: the pharaoh’s head and shoulders weighed seven tonnes. The French army, passing nearby, had tried to shift the colossus by drilling a three-inch hole in his shoulder and stuffing it with dynamite, but the soldiers had chickened out at the last moment and left him behind.
It fell to Giovanni Belzoni, a former circus strongman, weightlifter and engineer, to find a way to lever the colossal hulk out of the sand
The British, as they drove the French out of Egypt, also picked up their antiquarian loot. No consciences pricked about taking it. Glorious Thebes was now a “village”, populated by wretched lentil-eating peasants and “a dark and woolly-haired under-race” who had no notion what the statues meant. It fell to Giovanni Belzoni, a former circus strongman, weightlifter and engineer, to find a way to lever the colossal hulk out of the sand with a workforce of “complete savages…entirely unacquainted with any kind of labour and ignorant of the value of money.”
In 1818 the Younger Memnon was enthroned in a newly built Egyptian Room at the British Museum, where he remains, magnificent in grey and pale brown granite, the French sappers’ hole still in his shoulder. The keeper of the Egyptian Room explained that he was not going to put him under Fine Art, because he did not think he was. But he was certainly impressive. The statue’s arrival sparked an explosion of interest in all things Egyptian—but Shelley, who had flung himself into exile in Italy in March 1818, never actually saw him.
If he had, he might have been disappointed. The Younger Memnon has no despot’s scowl. He is clear-eyed and somehow innocent, though the hissing cobra of sovereignty sits coiled on his brow. Even when viewed from below, he is smiling. (Belzoni, on first sighting him, thought he smiled “at the thought of being taken to England.”) Someone has battered him, perhaps maliciously rather than accidentally; his left arm is severed at the shoulder, and the top right side of his head is sheared off. To someone, therefore, he was a tyrant, and his toppling into the sand was not the slow work of Nature and of time. But quick or slow, in Shelley’s world, that was how all tyrants ended. Even in the 21st century their overthrow, as in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, is most vividly proclaimed when their statues fall.
Good and bad ruins
Shelley’s brush with Egypt was brief. In the short term Italy took him over; in the long term, no other ancient civilisation could displace his beloved Greeks. For him, “Ozymandias” could have been set anywhere—and, in a way, it was. It was a poem inspired less by a particular pharaoh with a mellifluous name, than by ruins, and the lessons they could teach mankind. For the Romantic fashion that preceded Egypt was the craze for the picturesque decay of ancient places, either painted, or reconstructed in aristocrats’ gardens (the Prince Regent, now George IV, erected some “new” ones in 1827 at Virginia Water), or wandered through by poets in a melancholy frame of mind. “A ruin—yet what a ruin!” cried Byron, as his feet echoed “strangely loud” in the “enormous skeleton” of the Roman Coliseum.
For Shelley, as for many of his contemporaries, there were good ruins and bad ones. Good ruins, though they might also induce sadness, were the result of the eternal cycles of Nature and Necessity, the endless flux described by Lucretius in his “De Rerum Natura” (devoured by Shelley at school). Human settlements sprang up, and fell into decay; human blood and bones were atomised into earth; from earth—even from endless desert sands—would come, in time, new civilisations. So spoke the Fairy in “Queen Mab”:
There’s not one atom of yon earth
But once was living man;
Not the minutest drop of rain
That hangeth in its thinnest cloud,
But flowed in human veins…
Thou canst not find one spot
Whereon no city stood.
Ruins of this sort were everywhere in Shelley. In a short, unfinished story of 1814 called “The Assassins”, he lovingly described “piles of monumental marble and fragments of columns that in their integrity almost seemed the work of some intelligence more sportive and fantastic than the gross conceptions of mortality”. Ancient signs and inscriptions were still carved inside them, “mystic characters” redolent with wisdom if you knew how to read them. For the present Nature had taken such ruins over with ivy, bryony, myrtle and green lawns, a tapestry of loveliness, thereby “making them immortal”—and providing, not incidentally, great places to make love.
For Shelley the best ruins of all were Greek ones, lying beneath the sea or under rivers (flowing water representing the pulse of human thought), their elegant columns and white pediments decked with azure underwater weeds. These ruins would never fade from human memory, for they spoke of liberty and the rule of reason, and every revolution in his tumultuous age—the “war of the oppressed against the oppressors” in France, America, Genoa, Naples, Mexico, Spain, Greece—was modelled, however imperfectly, on the now-shattered forms of the Athenian republic.
Bad ruins were the “Ozymandias” kind. These too might have been, in their time, artistic and impressive; the sculptor of Ozymandias, Shelley implied, did a fine job of representing him. But these were relics of overweening hubris, where every stone spoke of a tyrant’s bloody oppression of his people. In “Queen Mab” he imagined a “sterile spot” in Salem where a temple of a thousand golden domes had once “exposed its shameful glory”:
Many a widow, many an orphan cursed
The building of that fane; and many a father,
Worn out with toil and slavery, implored
The poor man’s God to sweep it from the earth,
And spare his children the detested task
Of piling stone on stone, and poisoning
The choicest days of life
To soothe a dotard’s vanity.
The book that most clearly lay behind “Ozymandias” was “The Ruins: or, a Survey of the Revolutions of Empires”, by the Comte de Volney, a much-read French treatise of 1791 on why civilisations fell and what men should do to find happiness. Volney, travelling in Egypt and Syria, took a detour to visit the ruins of Palmyra, wandering for several days through the dilapidated streets, home now to no one but jackals and himself. Falling into a melancholy waking dream, he encountered the Genius of the place, who whirled him into space to view the ruins of the Earth: temples, funerary monuments, the pyramids, the Sphinx. Humans crept like ants among them. It was not Fate or Necessity that had done this, the Genius told him. It was not God, because these people had worshipped him, after their own weird fashion. No, it was man himself. Civilisation after civilisation had been brought down by the cupidity and ignorance of kings.
It could happen again, too (though Volney, a good revolutionary, thought a General Assembly of the People might forestall or delay it). If Egypt, why not Paris? Why not London? There was a certain delicious shiver in imagining London, as Shelley did in his dedication to “Peter Bell the Third” in 1819, as “an habitation of bitterns”, “when St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey shall stand, shapeless and nameless ruins, in the midst of an unpeopled marsh; when the piers of Waterloo Bridge shall become the nuclei of islets of reeds and osiers, and cast the jagged shadows of their broken arches on the solitary stream”. In the last lines of his Ozymandias attempt, Horace Smith did the same:
…some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
Where, though, was the contemporary Ozymandias, that shattered monster in the sand, that man of overweening pride and ruler of the world? He had only recently been toppled: defeated at Waterloo in 1815, he had been sent to exile on St Helena, furiously brooding on his lost power. “I hated thee, fallen tyrant!” cried Shelley in his sonnet of 1816, “Feelings of a Republican on the Fall of Bonaparte”. Now “thou and France are in the dust”:
…Thou didst prefer
A frail and bloody pomp which Time has swept
In fragments towards Oblivion.
Twenty years or so before, Napoleon had been in Egypt, warring against the Marmeluks but also, as he went, employing archaeologists and artists to examine and record the remains of pharaonic civilisations. One of his artists was Denon, whose book may have helped inspire Shelley, and whose time was spent hectically galloping from monument to monument to record what he could before the army moved on. (On his first visit to Thebes, the unseen enemy pelted him with stones; on a second he sketched the colossuses at Thebes with the dawn behind them, and was rather pleased with the result.)
Denon worshipped Napoleon, and was among the party who accompanied him secretly back to France to set up the Consulate on 18 Brumaire 1799. His “Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte” was dedicated to him not merely as a hero, but a god: “To join your name to the splendour of the monuments of Egypt is to link the sacred rites of our century to the fabled times of history.”
Napoleon briefly visited some of the fallen monuments himself. He contemplated the Sphinx at Giza, and went into one of the Pyramids while Denon, outside, mused that “the heap of pride that built them must have been even bigger than they are.” Napoleon asked to be left alone in the King’s Chamber; there, something happened that terrified him. He refused ever to speak of it because, he told a friend, “You’d never believe me.” His enemies presumed it must have been some premonition of his fall.
In 1867-68 Jean-Léon Gérôme produced his painting, “Bonaparte before the Sphinx” (below), heavy with historical echoes of hubris and its end. The picture hangs today in the extravagant, empty, unfinished castle built by William Randolph Hearst before his press empire imploded, in San Simeon, California.
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