This month’s poem analysis is a first for the blog: a reader suggestion! In the comments section for my post on Charlotte Smith’s “Written in the Church Yard at Middleton in Sussex” (which you can read here), Elizabeth of Serial Outlet recommended that I take a look at an English class staple: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” About four months later, and here we are!
I’ve put off diving into this particular poem for two reasons. First, having just covered a sonnet by a Romantic-era poet when I got the suggestion, I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself right out of the gate as someone stuck in that style and time period. Second, and more importantly, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the task. Of all the poem’s I’ve given the close reading treatment, “Ozymandias” is by the far the most famous. People who haven’t read a poem in decades remember this one from high school. As such, while I let the poem stew in my mind, I felt some pressure to do the work justice, to contribute something of value to the conversation surrounding it.
Granted, the way this essay is headed, that pressure may have been misplaced. Let’s jump right in, shall we?
I met a traveler 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, this looks like a straightforward account of hubris. The statue of Ozymandias (i.e., Ramesses II of ancient Egypt) boasts of the pharaoh’s grand works, all of which now lie in ruin. Even the highest among us are not immune to the ravages of time; we all are bound to erode into “lone and level sands” (line 14). A simple message, albeit very grandly stated. But I think the poem has more on its mind than that, and it might help to start with how the poem’s account is presented.
Let’s begin by taking the text of the poem as a self-contained unit, like we’ve found it on an ancient sheet of papyrus with no context to guide us. The first word of the poem, “I,” presents us with the voice of some unknown first-person speaker, suggesting that what follows is some personal testament. Having implicitly introduced themselves, the speaker then begins narrating their experience, of how they “met a traveler from an antique land” (line 1). This sounds like the set-up for a story, but this already is the end of the story-present narrative.
In the second line, the poem then shifts into the voice of the traveler, as the first-person speaker relates their description of the sculpture—a description which comprises the remainder of the poem. There is some ambiguity as to whether the description is a direct quotation or a paraphrase, as it lacks the quotation marks which will later bound the inscription, but even in the latter case the speaker’s own voice would be sublimated to the traveler’s original account.
This account then continues uninterrupted up through line 9, at which point the traveler inserts a signal phrase, drawing attention to the coming second shift in perspective: “And on the pedestal these words appear”. It is here that the ruins speak, issuing their challenge to all who behold them. Once the inscription is recited, the poem shifts back into the voice of the traveler, who carries the poem to its conclusion.
But arguably, we are not done breaking down the rhetorical nesting here. On a meta level, we know that the poem is work of one particular author, Shelley, who per traditional analysis of poetry is a separate entity from the first-person speaker. On a diegetic level, we know that the statue of Ozymandias has an artist, who gave the the statue its inscription. And on a speculative level, Ozymandias is unlikely to have made the statue himself; he may have commissioned it, or the artist may adopted the pharaoh’s persona for the inscription.
So to summarize, here’s how deeply this 14-line poem embeds its story:
- It is the work of Percy Bysshe Shelley, who in writing it…
- …adopts the voice of a lyrical, first-person speaker, who then…
- …tells the audience an account he that heard from the traveler, who in turn…
- …quotes a statue’s inscription, which…
- …was the product of an unknown artist, who finally…
- …adopts or quotes the voice of Ozymandias.
That’s six levels of abstraction that Shelley’s poem presents the reader with. I don’t know about you, but that seems like a long way to go just point out the hubris of world leaders. So why bother with all that embedding?
You’ll notice that two of the voices involved in the poem are those of artists: Shelley (the flesh-and-blood person) and whoever sculpted the statue of the Ozymandias. If there’s one group of people that spend more time thinking about their legacies than do pharaohs, then it’s artists. A common sentiment that one finds in poetry about art is the notion that art grants one a kind of immortality. Even after one dies, the thinking goes, their works will outlast them and carry their spirit through the ages.
As “Ozymandias” reminds us, however, this notion borders on wishful thinking. We don’t know the artist behind the sculpture here, and we had to engage in some diegetic speculation to realize that such a person even existed. And their work’s existence is just as tenuous. Now reduced to “vast and trunkless legs of stone” (line 2), “a shattered visage” (line 4), and a pedestal, the statue is only a few steps removed from complete destruction. This is hardly a unique phenomenon: Paintings are lost and damaged, cathedrals crumble from neglect, and sculptures of kings wither in the elements.
One might think that poetry, which is not so tied to the fragile physical world, would be better suited for immortality than the plastic arts. We cannot commit a sculpture to memory, but we can do so with a poem. And this possibility is where I find “Ozymandias” most intriguing.
As mentioned in my throat-clearing introduction above, “Ozymandias” is a sonnet, albeit one with an unconventional rhyme scheme (ababacdcedefef). More so than any other form of poetry, sonnets often concern themselves with the possibility of immortality through art. This is especially true when it comes to romantic love, as the speaker will often promise the object of their affections, whose beauty will naturally fade with time, the chance to live forever in their poetry. A good example, which I will quote in full because of some similarities with “Ozymandias” in terms of imagery, is Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti LXXV (archaic spellings preserved):
One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washèd it away:
Agayne I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tyde, and made my paynes his pray.
Vayne man, sayd she, that doest in vaine assay,
A mortall thing so to immortalize,
For I my selve shall lyke to this decay,
And eek my name bee wypèd out lykewize.”
Not so, (quod I) let baser things devize
To dy in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse your vertues rare shall eternize,
And in the hevens wryte your glorious name:
Where whenas death shall all the world subdew,
Our love shall live, and later life renew.”
Spenser’s sonnet is a compelling digression here, because while the poet’s optimism gets the last word, the brief glimpse of the physical world that we’re presented with seems to support the beloved’s skeptical position. If we see how the ocean keeps wrecking the poet’s inscription on the sand, who is to say that a fire or a bookworm might not do the same to an inscription in parchment?
I get the sense that Shelley’s poem would side with Spenser’s beloved on the matter, as it too presents us with a world too fragile for much to persevere. One might suggest that the oral tradition will protect the work from decay. After all, the statue in some sense has survived the six levels of abstraction outlined above. But what, exactly, has survived that process? Certainly not the empire-building magnificence the statue was meant to project. And if Shelley were to recite this poem to us in conversation, which part would we ultimately take away and tell to others: the whole text, the traveler’s account, or the inscription? Even that which survives is prone to mutation through repeated tellings.
“Ozymandias” is not the only sonnet uncertain about the form’s traditional stance on immortality through art—Shakespeare’s Sonnet LXV (“[Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea]”) is also uneasy on the matter—but I can’t think of many others which make such a depressing case with such verve.
And we must conclude with the unavoidable irony: this poem, which is about what doesn’t survive through the centuries, has in fact survived for two centuries. So far. Knock on wood.
There’s my take. But what are all your thoughts on the poem? If, like Elizabeth, you have a suggestion for a future deep dive, then let me know in the comments!
If you enjoyed this close reading of a poem, perhaps you would also like to read my thoughts on prose. I recently looked at the use of dark humor in George Orwell’s memoir Homage to Catalonia, which you can read here.