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The Transience of Life in Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Since its publication in 1818, the sonnet has been anthologized many times. This poem is quite untypical within the context of Shelley’s writings due to its unusual subject (it does not deal with Shelley’s traditional themes of love, beauty or self-expression) and detached tone. The poet’s aim is unconventional, as well. In fact, Shelley’s objective of ironical dethronement is quite straightforward. Thus, the success of Ozymandias comes from its implicit singularity and uniqueness. The aim of the paper is to determine what is the main idea in Ozymandias by Percy Shelley.

The poem refers to the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II (the 13th-century B.C.), who was referred to as “Ozymandias” in Greece. Ramses II was also known for promotion of numerous architectural projects in ancient Egypt. Shelley’s interest in the faded grandeur of the Egyptian civilization was dictated by the tendencies of his time. Indeed, in consequence of Napoleon’s expeditions, the English imagination was captivated by the ancient Egyptian culture.

Ozymandias opens with a story of the first-person narrator who recounts his conversation with a traveler “from an antique land” (Shelley). The traveler tells about his discovery in the desert: a colossal statue which has been almost completely ruined by harsh environmental conditions. A pair of legs and a shattered head “half sunk” in the sand is everything which is left of the magnificent sculpture. The inscription on the pedestal still reveals the intimidating message of Ozymandias. However, his arrogant statement is nothing but a pitiful leftover amid the moldering ruins.

Against the barren wasteland, this conceited inscription acquires a vivid ironical subtext

Thus, the tyrant’s arrogant assertions that he is omnipotent and omnipresent have been disproved by the time. Shelley’s poem represents the idea that nothing is permanent; the entire civilizations are subject to disintegration. The mighty empires ultimately fall into decay and are razed to the ground. The abandoned pieces of the statue are the best evidence for transience of life.

Thus, the unavoidable decline of all tyrants is the central theme in Ozymandias. The main theme of the poem is effectively disclosed through this special kind of ironical discord between the contemptuous inscription and the devastated area around. Due to this ironical dissonance, the poem resonates with the reader’s thoughts and perceptions. The irony hints at the author’s true position which is postponed to the end of the sonnet.

Apart from the profound meaning, the poem is also remarkable for its form and style. In Ozymandias, Shelley skillfully applied the rhyme technique which is close to a sonnet but is peculiar in some aspects. Just like the Shakespearean sonnet, Ozymandias is a fourteen-line poem in the form of iambic pentameter. At the same time, the poem resembles the Petrarchan sonnet since it consists of the octave (the first eight lines) and the sestet (the concluding six lines of the poem). However, Ozymandias represents the unusual rhyme scheme (ababacdcedefef) which does not comply with the Shakespearean or Petrarchan conventions. As a matter of fact, the octave and the sestet in Shelley’s sonnet constitute a graceful liaison as the new rhymes gradually replace the old ones.

Thus, Ozymandias possesses both deep philosophical content and masterly form, and it makes sense to examine the poem’s imagery more carefully. The initial setting of the sonnet is manifested in the very first line: “I met a traveler from an antique land” (Shelley). It is remarkable that the story comes from a strange traveler. In such a manner, the author detaches himself from the narrative. This technique contributes to the entire effect of the poem: it acquires the attributes of a mysterious legend, and its authenticity can be easily questioned.

The expressive function belongs to the epithet “antique land” since it emphasizes the significance and mystique of the story; it also provides the reader with a certain imaginative picture. In fact, the ancient times unfold in front of the reader as a vivid and perceptible narrative field. In lines 2-3 (“Who said: two vast and trunkless legs of stone / stand in the desert...” (Shelley)), the word “vast” indicates the power and great ambitions of the man who was represented by the huge statue.

The ill nature of Ozymandias is revealed through the description of the statue’s countenance: “Near them, on the sand, / half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown, / and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command” (Shelley). There are no other details of the statue’s face. The depiction is totally focused upon the pharaoh’s mouth; his twisted lips are distorted in the aggressive and contemptuous grimace. By means of this vivid imagery (“sneer of cold command”), the cruel nature of the tyrant is expressed. This figurative device implicates that Ozymandias was a merciless ruler who only gave orders and hardly listened to people around him.

Further, the poet advocates the vitality of art which actually excels the regime of the contemptuous tyrant: “Tell that its sculptor well those passions read / which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things” (Shelley). The statue turns out to be the only thing which has left of the mighty pharaoh. In fact, the sculptor’s art outlasts both the tyrant and the artist. The narrator praises the sculptor who managed to comprehend the pharaoh’s emotions and disposition most accurately: “The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed” (Shelley). The obsolete meaning of the word “mock” is “to imitate” or “to describe”. Thus, the artistic handcraft “to mock” the tyrant’s face refers to his ability to capture his “passions”.

The vanity and alleged omnipotence of the pharaoh are represented in the following lines: “And on the pedestal, these words appear: / “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings; / look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” (Shelley). The appeal to “the mighty” obviously refers to another king who would be impressed and intimidated by great “works” of Ozymandias. Because of the excessive self esteem, Ozymandias is convinced of his perennial ruling and existence.

It is also necessary to mention that this inscription turns out to be the most durable thing amid the ruins

As a matter of fact, the sculptor’s creation is gradually yet inevitably declining, while the written word still remains. Shelley advocates the idea that literary art is more powerful and long-lasting than tyrants. Thus, the legacy of art outlasts the political power: the mighty kingdom of Ozymandias reduces to a shattered sculpture and a few lines of words. In this contest, it is necessary to observe that Shelley’s poem also came down to the modern readers; the sonnet has actually endured the time. Thus, by depicting the short-lived potency of men, the author probably hopes that the written word will outlast the march of time and perpetuate the poet’s name.

The self esteem of Ozymandias is shattered in the concluding lines of the poem: “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare / the lone and level sands stretch far away” (Shelley). The alliterations of sounds “l” and “b” (“boundless and bare”; “lone and level”) emphasize the atmosphere of decay and disintegration. The use of alliterations in Ozymandias also provides the poem with a smooth and wavering rhythmization.

The “colossal wreck” is everything which is left of the mighty ruler and his civilization. Thus, the main idea of the poem is represented in the last lines. However, the poet does not conclude the sonnet with a life-asserting statement which is quite typical of Shelley’s poems. Instead, the author gives readers the possibility to make conclusions on their own. Such kind of author’s position provides the reader with an active role; stimulates the reflections as to the issue of transience.

The statue of Ozymandias is a metaphor for the impermanence of political authority. By the time the sonnet was written, Napoleon’s dictatorship in Europe had ceased to exist. Perhaps Shelley attributed the evanescent nature of the pharaoh’s ruling to the European hegemonies. Thus, the sonnet is the reminder for the rulers of all times that their omnipotence is ephemeral and illusory. The poem demonstrates that tyranny can never be long-lasting.

However, Shelley’s sonnet cannot be reduced to the satire on political power only

The poem certainly contains much deeper thoughts and ideas. As a matter of fact, the reading of Shelley’s sonnet exhorts to contemplate the issues of human mortality and transience. The statue of Ozymandias is a metaphor for the frailty of all man-made artifacts as compared to the power of Nature. It also symbolizes the hubris of mankind, as well as the essential impotence and nothingness of human beings in the face of time. The eternal forces of Nature and Time inevitably eliminate the artificial difference between kings, artists and common people.

As a matter of fact, the realization of one’s temporality is perhaps the most tragic problem of human existence. As a result, it is quite natural for people to resist death and aspire to immortality. The author of Ozymandias contends that all manifestations of human activity, all kinds of man-made phenomena will eventually succumb to the deconstructive forces of time. At its best, the powerful tyrants and entire civilizations will become only a part of history. Thus, the expectation of one’s eternity is ridiculous. As Shelley’s Ozymandias vividly demonstrates, the ambitions to conquer the time are vain and pathetic. The poem reminds readers that nothing lasts forever. Therefore, it is perhaps more reasonable to appease one’s vanity and try to live the life properly, if only to become a part of history.

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