An Analysis of Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley: II

In the last post, I had a look at some of the myths, fallacies and truths around the context of Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley, to help GCSE English Literature candidates for AQA make sense of what’s out there. I also looked a little at the sonnet form.

To recap: Ozymandias is a sonnet, but please don’t try to link it to love; rather link it to the sonnet traditions of John Milton if you must; the poem isn’t about a particular statue being brought to England, more the phenomenon of Egyptology which was particularly popular at the time Shelley was writing; the poem could be a critique of King George III among others, but it’s not specifically about him. Shelley would feel no hesitation at all in writing a poem directly criticising Mad King George, believe me!

In this post, I’m focusing on the language, ideas and views expressed in the poem.

The first line of the poem gives us a bit of context: the traveller is from “an antique land” – it’s still a little ambiguous though. Is the traveller FROM the antique land (i.e. he was born there?) or a traveller who’s come back from the “antique land”? For me, I like to think that he’s a traveller that came from (i.e. was born in) the antique land, since that just sounds more marvellously mysterious. The “antique land” is a little ambiguous, as is the title, but you don’t have to be an Egyptologist to know that Egypt is the place in question. Still, it adds another little shot of mystery right in there, with the vagueness of the place. It could be Macchu Pichu, the Aztecs, the Incas, the Mayans, the Hun… the fact that Egypt is not mentioned specifically is important, because it means it’s also another level of vague old mystery. It makes it more universal, as if many ancient civilisations could have such statues as he describes later. The universality of power is the message of the poem, and to have such a vague description is really great, because it leaves so much more to the imagination. The fact that the traveller has no name and isn’t from a particular place just makes what he has to say even more universal. 

In the second line, we get the opening of the story he tells, which is kind of peculiar in itself. I kind of imagine this traveller almost stopping Shelley in the street to share this tale with him. It goes from ‘meeting’ the traveller to him recounting the tale: no ‘how’s it going?’ no ‘how are you?’ no ‘Would you like me to tell you a marvellous tale?’. No. It goes right into the story itself, which is a weird and mysterious thing to do.

The tale he tells is this: two huge stone legs are all that remains standing of a statue. The word choice on these first three lines is simple and clear: no mystery here, except for the image itself. In the third line, the introduction of a desert scene is also evocative, since the desert is in itself a barren and deserted place. It’s a lifeless place. A desert in itself is profoundly symbolic, because it is so devoid of life and civilisation. Deserts also have the potential to swallow up civilisations that have departed, hiding all traces of them in a relatively short period of time.

It’s incongruous, these stone legs in the desert. In a way, it makes you question what they are doing here… were they built in the desert or were they built in a civilisation that has now crumbled and has been swallowed up by the desert?

What’s also interesting is a man named William Paley, who was a religious writer and philosopher. He wrote a book in 1802, just 16 years before the poem was published, in which he speculates that the our world and the life on it is as out of place in the universe as finding a watch in the sand would be. He says that if we were walking along the beach and we found a watch in the sand, our curious minds would ask a lot of questions of it: How did it get there? Who made it? It’s one of the primary arguments to justify the existence of God, in Paley’s opinion. He says the wonder of the universe points to an intelligent creator (i.e. God)

Why would Shelley have used a similar image of finding something in sand? It kind of makes us do the same thing – hazard a guess about its maker and about what it’s supposed to be about. Finding those legs in the sand is just the same as Paley’s argument about finding a watch in the sand. Except Shelley doesn’t use it to ponder about the existence of God. Well, he wouldn’t, being such a committed atheist and not believing in God in the slightest. But that doesn’t stop him using the idea, just as modern committed atheist and non-believer Richard Dawkins did, when he wrote his book The Blind Watchmaker

In fact, Shelley uses it as a point to ponder about the actual, physical maker of the object and its “inspiration”. I say “inspiration” because I’m pretty sure the sculptor wasn’t at all inspired, more forced to make it despite how he felt about the despotic Pharoah he was being forced to represent.

Paley starts his argument by saying that if we’re wandering along and see a stone, we don’t go “wow! A stone! I wonder how that got there!” but our inquiring minds start to ask questions if we find something out of the ordinary, like a watch on the ground. We draw the conclusion that “the watch must have had a maker”, and, he continues, if we know anything at all about watches, we might think that the watch in front of us was quite marvellous in its creation. 

I think that’s true of this poem too. It makes us consider who made the statue that is now only fragments of what it once was? It makes us consider why they made it and for what purpose. It also makes us think about what it’s doing there and how even it came to be broken. I love this poem because those stone legs in the desert are a massive springboard into thought and speculation. The poem just makes us ask a gazillion questions about what those legs are even doing there in the desert, never mind who made them or for what purpose or why, or who broke them, or any other question a curious mind might want to know when seeing a relic from the past.

And, like we might appreciate the skill of the watchmaker who’d made a watch and left it on the ground, we might also appreciate the workmanship of the sculptor as well as the craftsmanship of our poet, Shelley. Now that’s clever!

But back to those legs. If all that remains of the civilisation is ruins, that tells us just how long the legs have been standing there. You just wouldn’t expect to come across a statue in the desert. But that is how it is for many civilisations who have grown and faded: the city of Carthage, the Roman empire, the Mayans, the Aztecs, the Incas. Their ruins are now often eaten by the desert or swallowed up by the rainforest. We might also theorise about other aspects of those legs too. 

In the second line, we also begin to notice the enjambment and fragmented lines, how “who said–” is followed by a pause and then runs into line three. It again creates a rhythm that is more similar to natural speech than it is to a poem. That’s why I like the Bryan Cranston version. It feels to me how it should be read – not bound by metre and rhythm and rhyme, but as if it were a story being told, full of drama and mystery. I feel too that the line fragments are a good way to express the fragmented statue, how the “vast and trunkless legs of stone” are broken up from “stand in the desert” and broken again from “the visage”. We have quite a bit of text between the legs of stone and the head, which adds to the effect of them being far away from one another. It also puts the sand between them, which reminds us that the stone will return to sand in time, fading completely from existence. Other than the legs and the face, nothing else seems to remain of the statue. It’s very reminiscent of the cycle of things: that everything must return to dust (or sand, in this case) eventually.

In line three, the ellipsis also serves to split the line up, disconnecting the legs and the head. It also gives us room to pause and think, that ellipsis. We have a little time to contemplate the legs, the desert, the stone, before we move on to focus on the head. The speaker adds three clauses which distance the head even further, “near them, on the sand, half-sunk” which causes a kind of mini-build-up to the head, coupled with the ellipsis, the line break. That’s pretty clever, splitting up the legs and the head in that way, putting that distance and thinking space between them. 

In line four the language becomes more complex, using the word “shattered” to convey the fragments of the statue, and the word “visage”. Visage is altogether more impressive than “face”, plus it scans well. It conveys more of the appearance of the face, the emotions on it. It’s a very literary word now and its use has declined significantly over the past two hundred years. However, a Google Ngram search shows that in fact, it had a little surge of popularity around 1820, the time the poem was published. Quite why it was so popular right then is hard to say. Did Shelley influence the people using it? I’d say not, since it seems to have been on the increase throughout the 1700s and had a peak in 1799 too. So whilst it’s literary and complex to us, it may well have been a popular word at the time Shelley was writing. Google Ngrams, by the way, is a great way to tell if a word was popular and where it was found at the time if you’re unsure if a word has just slipped out of use or changed connotation a little.

We notice on this line too that the narrator is using the present tense. We could have noticed it before at “stand” but it becomes clear with “lies”. The implication is that this statue is there still, that its message is just as relevant today as it was then and it’s another way that Shelley makes the poem seem really timeless. It goes back to that whole anonymous traveller and “antique land” thing. 

This is the face of a statue that has very specific features, a “frown,/ and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command”. The sound of the lines is interesting – the hard ‘k’ sound of “cold command” which supports the ideas contained in the words themselves. And this is clearly a statue of a person who wanted a particular set of emotions captured. Well, usually. Normally, I imagine a despot pharoah would have a statue destroyed and its sculptor put to death if they did something they didn’t like, don’t you? I mean, if you’re going to have a statue made that’s supposed to last for all eternity, you’d commission one that said the kind of things about you that you want the world to know. If you’re the sculptor, you’re not about to sculpt an unflattering statue just in case, you know, the person wanted to decapitate you for offending them.

So you want a statue that captures elements of you that you want both your subjects and your enemies to know about you. In this case, that you are displeased, you are perhaps disgusted by what you see before you, a feeling of revulsion maybe, or disapproval. A dog will wrinkle its lip as a way to bare its teeth a little, showing displeasure. It’s a threat gesture. Couple that with the sneer and you’ve got something scornful, contemptuous, that the way this statue has been carved shows nothing but how little the subject feels for the world around him. What message does Ozymandias want us to understand? That he feels we are all beneath him, that he is so much better than we are. He wants us to know how he is superior to us in every single way, that we are contemptible scumbags. The statue then is there to inspire fear in his enemies and his subjects, and show us just how superior Ozymandias is to us. 

Shelley tells us in line six that it is the sculptor himself who was an above-average artist, able to capture these emotions perfectly in the statue itself, when it says he “read” those emotions on Ozymandias’s face. In fact, he was so good at reading the emotions and carving them into stone that you can still feel that disgust and contempt resonating through the years. The emotions still linger, even though the guy who inspired the statue is long dead. The irony of those “living” emotions being carved in stone is not lost on the speaker, who calls the statue’s face “these lifeless things”, as if the sculptor has managed to bring the statue to life just by their skill. It’s ironic too that a fleeting emotion such as disgust can live on through the years, but a man may not. 

In line 8, Shelley is deliberately playing with meaning when he says “the hand that mocked them”. The hand belongs to the artist here, as he means both that the sculptor was “mocking” the king, ridiculing him and treating him with derision in recreating him in such a way, but also the word “mocked” can mean to “mimic” or “imitate” so it means both recreating or copying the king’s face and mocking it. We say a “mock-up” in the same way, meaning like a rough draft or model. “The heart that fed” is also presumably refering to the sculptor as well. Why would his heart be feeding? Perhaps if we take the meaning of “feed” to mean “to be nourished”. Either way, a heart that feeds sounds kind of weird. I don’t have a satisfactory explanation for what I think that bit of the line really means, and I’ve not read one either, which makes me think that most people don’t. 

Some people will look at the end of Line 8 as a way to focus on structure, saying the poem is split into two parts: an octave and a sestet. Line 8 doesn’t finish an octave particularly, since it is not finished with a full stop, but continues into line 9. Three versions that I have in print have a colon, and one has a semi-colon. You can find it online with full-stops as well. That piece of punctuation is surprisingly important. A colon would suggest an explanation to follow, an embellishment. I like it best as a colon. It’s a colon in my ancient copy of Bloom and Trilling, and in my Penguin copy of Shelley’s work, as well as my Everyman copy. The Poetry Foundation have it as a semi-colon, which proposes the sentence in line 9 – 11 as an equally-weighted sentence rather than one dependent on what came before. I like the colon because it suggests a build-up. However, I don’t like that it is followed on line 10 by another colon. Two colons in a row do not good English make. However, since most of my printed copies have two colons in a row, I shall go with that. A colon suggests a springboard, that what follows is an explanation of what comes before. Thus, everything beyond line 8 is an embellishment or development rather than a separate point. Surprisingly important, that little dot. 

Line 9 – 11 cover the inscription on the statue’s pedestal, how he is “King of Kings”, suggesting a superlative, an incomparable, a magnificence. We pick up there on the alliteration of “cold command” as well, still a hardness and an edge to the sound. The whole tone suggests a self-importance and pride, which ties well with the expression of derision and contempt that he has. It also contains an instruction: “Look on my Works”, which is an invitation, but one that is supposed to instill within us a sense of the mighty achievement that this Pharoah had overseen (let’s be honest, he only did it because he commanded others, not because he did it himself!). And to be honest, when you are standing within the ruins of a nation, it can be pretty humbling to realise just how very far they went. I’ve been to the ruins of Volubilis in Morocco, some 2000 miles south of Hadrien’s Wall and thought how amazing it is that the Roman Empire was just so HUUGE. But all that is left of them, too, are ruins. Napoleon had nothing on the Romans. All these King of Kings who are now just names in textbooks. It doesn’t matter how big your kingdom was, how many people you commanded, how many enemies you fought off. Give it a while and people won’t remember your name. 

Who Ozymandias wants to intimidate with this great big statue are all his enemies, “Ye Mighty”. He doesn’t care about making the average man afraid of him, just his enemies. I do, as an aside, wonder WHO or WHAT destroyed the (fictional) statue here? I mean, we’re quite good at rewriting history by going around and smashing things or hiding things. A Roman village by my house was ‘lost’ for thousands of years after the Romans moved out and the French pilfered the stone to repurpose it. Wouldn’t it be quite sweetly ironic if one of the “mighty” to whom this warning statue is addressed had come along and smashed it?! Is it simply time that has destroyed the statue, or a later king, who took umbrage and felt peeved by this grandiose statement? Who knows?

I think, in the interest of the poem, that it’s most interesting if time itself got to this “King of Kings”, but that’s not the only reason why this statue could be in bits in the desert.

Certainly, once a regime falls, a lot of the statues are toppled and then repurposed. All the towns named after those illustrious leaders are repeatedly renamed. Their “works” are repurposed and claimed as somebody else’s, how Tsaritsyn became Stalingrad became Volgograd, and St Petersburg to Petrograd to Leningrad and then back to St Petersburg as various leaders and dictators came and went. It’s not massively important if it’s purposeful or not, but I think a natural decaying is more in keeping with the theme of the poem. Those Egyptians did a fair bit of wiping people out of history once their reign had finished. It could even have been the people themselves who destroyed the statue, making it even more sweet that he had been destroyed by the very people he commanded. 

The irony of Ozymandias’s command is not lost on us: we might well despair, but not because we would ever think to accomplish what he did, but because whatever we do, it will fade eventually. It’s a double irony, in fact, since we do despair of what he did, of his despotism, of his cruelty, just as we despair of the rules of Hitler or Stalin, but we also despair because this is human nature: where one dictator falls, another rises. We despair because it’s human nature to be corrupted by power, to lust for it, to want to subjugate and hurt those who we are responsible for, to want to wipe out others. That should make us despair. If we’ve got any of the milk of human kindness in our soul, we’d despair that in five thousand years of history, we can name a dictator in every age. And if we aim for immortality, we’d despair too, since you can be as famous as you like, have struck fear into the hearts of millions of people, and sooner or later, people will ask “Who’s Ramses?” or “Who’s Stalin?” “George Who?” “Peter the What?” 

In that, this poem becomes an EPIC. The whole purpose of Greek tragedies for example is to show that the mighty can fall as easy (and further) than the common man. And this poem doesn’t need three hours on a stage to make the same point. If Shakespeare needed three hours of Macbeth to show us that cruelty, ambition, murder and treachery in the name of the pursuit of power will lead to nothing much but your head on a stake and your name as a footnote in the world’s history, then Shelley does it in TWELVE lines! One image and it says it all.

My favourite line of the whole poem is “Nothing beside remains.”

We have a play with rhythm here. NOthing beSIDE reMAINS. To be technical, one iamb and two trochees. In fact, we’ve got a kind of mirror line. NOthing/ beSIDE/reMAINS/ … ROUND the/deCAY – so two iamb-trochee and a trochee in the middle. It makes it very much like human speech, but also very measured.

For me, it adds a kind of strange echo. I like the sound of it. The caesura in the middle of the line also adds a pause for effect just after that “Nothing beside remains” which makes us stop to ponder that profound of profound ironies. All that Ozymandias is is the king of ruins, remains and decay. Not so proud now, are you, Ozymandias?

The final sentence is a kind of conclusion or reflection that starts on line 11 and runs into line 14. We build up to the final “far away” and Shelley does lots of things to emphasise the distance, the emptiness, the boundlessness and limitlessness of the sands and desert. First, we have the immediate space around the statue, around the decay of the “colossal Wreck”. That word “decay” is just perfect to describe the ruins of this civilisation and this Pharoah’s work. It really does describe that gradual decline over a period of time rather than something immediate. Decay is a time thing. “Colossal” is also a good word, since it suggests the Colossus of Rhodes, an enormous statue that was supposed to bridge a harbour, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Apparently the size of the Statue of Liberty, bigger than Christ the Redeemer in Brazil, it was built to celebrate a victory of one old civilisation over another. The statue stood only 54 years before it was destroyed in an earthquake. Nobody even can agree where it stood anymore. I think that in itself says a lot about statues and the people they represent.

With the alliteration of “b” in “boundless and bare” in line 13, we’ve also got something that draws our attention to just how lifeless and empty this desert is: we are all the king of kings in an eternal nothingness. “Boundless” suggests infinite, without limits, without boundaries. There again is the sense of timelessness, reminding us just how pointless it all is in the grand scheme of things. You can have a 60-year reign of terror and you’re less than a footnote in the universe’s history.

And what is left at the end of it all? “Lone and level sands” which “stretch far away”. It reminds me of another expression, about “the sands of time” – how we sometimes imagine a life as kind of an hourglass through which the sand runs constantly, slowly for some and faster for others. It reminds me too of the line in Macbeth about “the seeds of time” and Macbeth wanting to know which grains will grow and which will not, which puts a focus on the irony that sand will never grow, will never become anything. It’s what happens when rocks decay. Sand is what rocks and mountains become, if you give them long enough. That in itself is another powerful message about time and decay.

So that’s what the poem is to me – an immense reminder of the pointlessness of life, the brevity of life and achievement, about the eternal truth that we are but footnotes in the history of the world, no matter how big or impressive our “works” ever were. There’s a kind of irony in the fact that the art has lasted longer than the might of the king’s rule, but even that is fading into obscurity and being reclaimed by the sands.

There is so much more to say about this poem, about how it works as a metaphor for all things. This too shall pass. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi. Tempus Fugit. Nothing endures. Memento Mori. Remember that you have to die. For anyone religious who believes in the afterlife or the everlasting nature of things, our life does not end when we end. But for the non-believer, the depressing reality of the fact that you are a very long time dead indeed is a very powerful idea. In fact, some would argue that it’s one reason we want so much to believe in God and religion, so that we don’t have to think about the fact that our lives are brief and if nothing comes after, they are pointless as well. Ironically, those of us who do live on, live often through art or ideas. Our philosophers, teachers, sculptors, musicians, artists, poets and playwrights often find themselves living on much longer than the people with power.

The fact that the poem is a very powerful statement about the brevity of things is what I love most about it. YOLO, after all.

I bet you wish I’d just put “what’s this poem about? YOLO.” at the beginning?!

Anyway, enjoy this epic poem and everything it tells us about how nothing lasts, not even the reigns of sneery old kings who ruled over vast empires.

We all fall in the end.

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about the AQA GCSE English Literature Anthology, please send me an email and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.

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