English Literature


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The Iconic Poem: 'Ozymandias' by Percy Bysshe Shelley

'Ozymandias' is undoubtedly one of the most famous works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, alongside 'Ode to the West Wind'. This powerful and thought-provoking poem depicts the downfall of a once-glorious ruler, reflecting Shelley's own battle against authority and tyranny. As a fervent believer in individual liberty and democracy like his father-in-law William Godwin, Shelley used his writing to criticize monarchies and government. Through the story of the ancient ruler Ozymandias, Shelley sends a message to those in positions of power, warning them that time will eventually prevail over all.The poem opens with a traveler from a distant land describing a sight in the desert: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desert". Published in 1818, the same year as Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein', it made a significant impact in the literary world. However, Shelley's radical beliefs on politics and society, including freedom of thought, love, and human rights, often overshadowed his poetry and personal life. So, what inspired him to write 'Ozymandias'?To fully comprehend the poem, we must consider its historical and literary contexts. In the year of its publication, London was in a frenzy over the news of ancient artifacts being brought to the British Museum from Egypt. The renowned Italian explorer and archaeologist Giovanni Belzoni was responsible for this monumental task, which took over a year to complete. Among the relics was a statue of Ramesses II, sparking a renewed interest in Ancient Egypt and its culture, including Shelley's.The fascination with the statue was so great that it sparked a friendly rivalry between Shelley and his friend and fellow poet Horace Smith. Both wrote poems based on the theme of Ozymandias, but Shelley's version became more famous. The opening line, "I met a traveler from an antique land", raises questions about the identity of the traveler. Did Shelley really meet Belzoni, or was it a figment of his imagination? Perhaps this line is a reflection of Shelley's desire for adventure and meeting someone who had encountered Ramses II firsthand.Apart from personal experiences, Shelley's literary context for the poem also involves the description of the statue in a text by the ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus: "The shades from the tomb...stands a monument of the king known as Ozymandias." Interestingly, it appears that Shelley drew inspiration from this text and paraphrased it in his poem, with lines like "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!"Additionally, there were various travel books available during Shelley's time, such as Pococke's 'Description of the East' and Savary's 'Letters on Egypt'. Another travel writer, Denon, also mentions the statue of Ozymandias in his writings, although the inscription has since worn away. It is possible that Shelley fused these different sources of information, including a potential visit from Walter Coulson, editor of 'The Traveller' journal, who might have brought news of Belzoni's arrival.In conclusion, 'Ozymandias' offers a glimpse into Shelley's vivid imagination and his love for adventure, as well as his insightful views on politics and society. Through his poem, he cautions those in positions of power that even the most powerful rulers will eventually succumb to the passage of time. A timeless message that remains relevant even today.

The Structure and Literary Devices of Percy Bysshe Shelley's 'Ozymandias'

'Ozymandias' follows the traditional structure of a Petrarchan sonnet, consisting of an octet and a sestet. The poem opens with an octet, 8 lines that establish the setting, followed by a sestet, 6 lines that delve into the situation. The 'volta', or turning point, occurs at the beginning of the sestet when the pedestal with the prideful inscription is introduced. This structure closely mimics the Petrarchan sonnet, with an added element of Shakespearean rhyme scheme.

The Meter and Literary Devices Used in 'Ozymandias'

The poem adopts a loose iambic pentameter, each line containing 10 syllables with every other syllable stressed. The iamb, a commonly used poetic foot containing an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, creates a natural and fluid rhythm in lines such as "And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command". However, Shelley also plays with the strictness of the iambic pentameter, adding to the poem's natural flow and rhythm.

Poetic devices such as alliteration, the repetition of sounds, and enjambment, the flow of ideas between lines, are also used in 'Ozymandias'. Shelley employs alliteration in phrases like "burn bright," "swan song," and "long lost," adding emphasis and a sense of drama. Enjambment is used twice in the poem, highlighting the themes of decay and impermanence.

Quotes that Capture the Themes of 'Ozymandias'

The inscription on the pedestal of the statue, "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!" is one of the most famous lines from the poem. It showcases the Pharaoh's arrogance and belief in his own immortality while also serving as a warning of the eventual downfall of even the most powerful rulers. The final 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," reflect on the fleeting nature of human power and the inevitable decay of all things.

Percy Bysshe Shelley's 'Ozymandias': a Meditation on Mortality and Power

In the desert stands a statue, a testament to the once-mighty Ramesses II, who has since been reduced to a faceless piece of rock. In 'Ozymandias', Shelley explores the themes of mortality and the fleeting nature of power. The poem suggests that worldly achievements such as pride and status ultimately hold little value, as time will eventually overtake all. The words of the Pharaoh, "King of Kings," now sound hollow and empty, symbolizing the inevitable downfall of even the most arrogant rulers.

Additionally, Shelley weaves a political commentary into the poem, expressing his disapproval of royalty and the concept of a despot ruler who inherits their power rather than earning it. This goes against his beliefs of a more liberated and organized society.

What to Take Away from 'Ozymandias'

  • Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote 'Ozymandias' in 1817.
  • The poem was first published in 1818.
  • 'Ozymandias' uses a statue of Ramesses II to explore themes of power and mortality.
  • The title of the poem suggests that time will eventually erode all things.
  • The main message of 'Ozymandias' is that power is never absolute or eternal.
  • The poem has three narrators: Shelley, the Traveler, and Ozymandias.

Exploring 'Ozymandias': Frequently Asked Questions

Who is the author of 'Ozymandias'?

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote the poem in 1817.

What is the main theme of 'Ozymandias'?

The poem delves into the themes of mortality and the temporary nature of power.

Exploring the Meaning of 'Ozymandias'

The title of the poem captures the notion that nothing can escape the effects of time.

What is the central theme of the poem?

The poem highlights the fact that no matter how powerful or dominant one may seem, their reign will eventually come to an end.

Who are the storytellers in this poem?

There are three voices within the poem: Shelley, the Traveller, and Ozymandias himself.

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