‘Ozymandias,’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1817)

This is not only Shelley’s most famous poem – generally having been read or heard even by many who are not interested in literature – but it is also might be one of the most famous poems in the English language. As such, I do want to write a bit about it, rather than avoid it merely because it’s so popular. At the same time, it’s hard to find something to say about it that likely hasn’t been pointed out before. But here we are…

What makes a poem famous? In the most basic sense, the annoyingly obvious truth-making quality here is that it is widely known to exist and is often quoted. But then what is the cause of this? To some extent, contingency plays a role here over the course of time. Many poems and poets unknown in their time have come, with time, to become nearly household names, at least among the well-read. But I think with this poem there are qualities that make its ultimate fame unsurprising. As a cautionary epistemic note, though, the elements of the poem that have led to its success occupy the role of a necessary cause rather than a sufficient one. There are many great poems, as great as this and greater, that might never come to the same prominence among cultures that speak the language they are written in. Nevertheless, in this post I’ll try and make a series of notations and observations on aspects of the meaning and form of this poem that make it worthwhile to both read and reflect upon.

The first thing that should be said about the English Romantic poets in the 19th century is that one of their more endearing qualities is the capacity to create and give to us images and narratives that, for lack of better term, entertain. And I don’t mean that in a frivolous sense, necessarily at least. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is stirring stuff, and still can capture the attention of a 21st century reader raised on cinema with all of its own carefully captured images and narratives (or sometimes so). Paradise Lost, to take another premier example of poetic invention, may be rich in image and narrative, but I can’t say it would tend to entertain as well as, say, Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Something was astir in the poetry produced by these figures, and much of it was sparked by increasing contact and reawakened awareness of the Near East, brought about by Napoleon’s Egyptian forays.

Ozymandias itself was written about merely fifteen years after the French campaigns in Egypt. The basic image that forms the content of the poem is that of a toppled statue in the Egyptian desert, somewhere off away from the Nile’s flow. It’s a static image; it has no movement, no narrative force, except by way of implication. It is nearly a painting, except that Shelley does give it a narrative framing, by setting up a fictional first-person figure in the first line of the poem:

I met a traveller from an antique land…

The effect of this, right from the start, is to set up a particular mood, a suggestion of distance in space and time, and all that lies between us and the image given. It’s assumed, reasonably, that this figure is nothing more than a fiction, and that Shelley himself did not meet such a “traveller.”

When I was young, and to this day, it is easy for images of ancient Egypt to evoke a very special sense of age and mystery wrapped up in each other tightly. No words could convey those feelings fully, but a poem like this might somewhat, and the sort of epic and desolate flavor found here is key to grounding the sonnet’s internal thematic weight. And while it is a counsel of despair to sum up a poem like this, I think an expression of its theme is possible in even a few words, that we might clarify what we at first encounter with our emotions, and these without precise resolution.

The fundamental theme of this poem is the harsh and rather awesome contrast between the presumptions of power and the effects of time. That is to say, those who rule over others, by some means or another, can easily aggrandize to themselves a rather elevated stature within their own age. It can even lead them to make great visages of themselves, set up precisely to challenge the flux of the universe with solid stone. Everything about a statue is symbolic, most of all its material. But, again, look what time does… and that is what Shelley unveils. Strength is its own weakness, its own blindness. What we call weakness, and what we call strength, both are servants of time, and neither one of the other. The ruler of the world is Change, and not we, individuals, tangled up perpetually in our own shifting ambitions and desires.

So, to descend for a few points into the nitty gritty of the verse…

It is a fourteen line sonnet, written with a rather wandering rhyme pattern compared to more traditional manifestations of the form. But, in that, it was typical of the sonnet in the 19th century. In an earlier essay, I tackled Tennyson’s sonnet ‘The Kraken,’ which was likewise innovative in its rhyme scheme. And by innovative, I mean relative to that great exemplar of the English sonnet, Shakespeare. It’s merely an historical heuristic to use him as the starting point or backdrop here, but in my own mind, it is not a completely unjustified one. Change is always happening to forms, and it doesn’t always run from more ordered to more chaotic. Nevertheless, this is actually a case where a precisely balanced order transformed into a more spontaneous order. Order is present, but it flirts with chaos for the sake of effect.

There is also a wonderful double meaning in the King’s inscription, made all the more wonderful because it is obviously unintentional on Ozymandias’ part. When the inscription’s pronounces grandly that “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:/Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” – it is plain that, in his own time, this meant that his own greatness was so great that all the other greats were meant to bend their knee to his superiority. With time, though, this meaning shifts along with its changing context. Now, it is those who are presently considered mighty (or considered so by themselves) who should despair, not because anyone else is greater than them, but because this is what their greatness will come to: a “colossal wreck” among “the lone and level sands.” It is this obliviousness of Ozymandias, who unconsciously taunts himself when he means to taunt others, that feels, well, like justice. It feels just that hubris should be cursed to this kind of stupidity. Shelley, I think, was being profound and neither vain nor bitter here. But, it is easy ourselves to indulge in our own petty vengefulness against our present overlords, to use our imagination as a revolutionary weapon when we read this poem. But I guess we would need a poem for ourselves then, since the logic of change and chance applies to all, not just to the powerful and proud who abuse their position.

Though there is, as always, endless things to discuss about any great poetry, I will stop with one more. Though the language of this poem never once fails to capture the attention, never stumbles over the tongue or the brain, on further examination, there was a grammatical point that actually began to bother me a bit. I nagged over the grammar, probably too much, for about half an hour, and then made a decision to just write out what I thought is likely true here.

It primarily concerns the line (and some of its companions): “The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed…”

First, who does “them” refer to, or rather what is the antecedent of the pronoun “them”? I think I assumed prior to writing this that Shelley meant Ozymandias’ hand was mocking his own people, since I had seen many Egyptian statues with an upraised hand. But, I’m a bit embarrassed about that now, since Shelley doesn’t present the statue as having any parts other than the legs still standing upright, and the head fallen to the ground. I was also fooled when I didn’t totally grasp the less common usage of “mocked,” which is to refer  to an act of imitating or replicating something or someone in some manner. The sculptor’s hand “mocked” the various features of the “shattered visage” that Shelley has just listed in the previous four lines. So, the antecedent of “them” is simply all those qualities carved in stone.

Following this, I think we can also go back a bit further and take the phrase “which yet survive,” in the previous line. This verb is not intransitive, but instead is transitive. The subject of the verb is, of course, “those passions,” which are that which “survive.” But this isn’t the intransitive sense of the act of or the state of being of “surviving.” It takes instead the relative transitive meaning that these “passions” have survived” frozen in stone the “hand that mocked them” till this day.

This finally lets us interpret the meaning of the last phrase in the line: “… and the heart that fed.” If there was any point in this poem where I think Shelley may have grasped for a rhyme too much, it is here. Nonetheless, I don’t actually think that’s a fair critique of Shelley in this instance. The metaphor of the heart, the person’s inner being, feeding on something, either something ill or good, is an old and venerable one, and is perfectly fine here. The heart being referred to must be that of Ozymandias, the antique king. My interpretation would be, roughly, that it refers to a heart feeding on its own pride and self-exultation. So Shelley refers to the sculptor and to the king together in this line, one after the other, pointing out how the passions that the sculptor recorded from the king’s face onto the stone have survived both of them with time.

Far from being irrelevant, I think this final grammatical clarification strengthens the theme of the poem. By drawing out how not just the king (who is the center-point of this little story) but also the sculptor were both left behind in the dust of the ages, it renders even more complete our sense of the inevitability of decay. Just as the ruler’s works fade, so do the artist’s. Perhaps Shelley compared himself to that antique sculptor, not letting his own judgement of Ozymandias’ pride tempt him into a self-righteous viewpoint. The poet, like that sculptor, is also subject to the same thing, and so too their works. I think that this makes the poem more profound, that it contains a theme that it can, subtly, apply to itself and its maker. It doesn’t do so directly: one really does have to think out that particular implication. And I think this is right. Why should it be easier for us to see our own hubris than it was for Ozymandias? Why should Shelley have made it easier?

Actually on this last point, I have wondered whether I really was reading out a meaning Shelley intended consciously, or whether it was simply a justifiable reflection on my own part. The meanings that come from reflecting on the meaning of a poem may not be found in the poem itself in some direct or obvious sense, but are still connected to it, like a parent is to a child. I think it’s possible, but not probable that Shelley himself formulated this relation between his theme and his form.

Featured image: ‘Egyptian Temple,’ by Marc-Charles-Gabriel Gleyre (1840), image in the public domain.

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Poetical Fragments