Is Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ a great poem, or a poem about greatness? (or both?)

It’s quite common to see Romantic poetry in English Literature curricula, largely because they tend to feature more layman language and universal themes (well, ‘layman’ compared to their more stylistically experimental Modernist counterparts or more linguistically distant Medieval / Renaissance predecessors).

That said, it doesn’t mean Romantic poems are necessarily easy specimens for interpretation and analysis.

Ozymandias’, a sonnet published in 1818 by Percy Bysshe Shelley (one of the ‘Big 6’ poets of Romanticism), is a good example of this contradiction. While the poem doesn’t contain a whole lot of ‘difficult’ words, it eludes simple explanation for the very reason that its theme is so broad and sweeping.

On the surface, ‘Ozymandias’ is an account of a random traveller who speaks of the presence of a “colossal Wreck”, which happens to be a gigantic monument of a certain “King of Kings” named “Ozymandias”. Widespread scholarship has established ‘Ozymandias’ to be a reference to Ramesses II, the 12-13 BC Egyptian Pharaoh known as ‘Ramesses the Great’.

The point of this poem, though, is that for all the imposing, overwhelming, “vast” nature of Ozymandias’ sculpture, none of this “lifeless” materiality compensates for the sense of hollowness and transience that outlast the king’s existence, highlighting the sobering fact that even the greatest of kings must eventually concede their power to the passing of time.

Indeed, this is why “Nothing beside remains”, and the word “remains” serves as a pun here, conveying the idea that “nothing beside the remains (as noun, in the sense of “remnants”) remains (as verb, in the sense of “lasts”) – life, glory, fame, nada. It’s also telling, then, that the poem should end with a description which focuses not on the majestic grandeur of the sculpture (which is portrayed as being rather ugly in the poem), but instead on the “boundless and bare”, “lone and level sands [that] stretch far away”, perhaps suggestive of the idea that even the most miniscule unit in nature – a grain of sand –  is better able to withstand the force of history and survive the test of time than even the ‘kingliest’ of kings among humanity.  

Whether or not it’s a great poem, then, is a judgment that I will leave to you. But in any case, this poem could be understood as a statement on why so-called ‘greatness’ isn’t such a big deal, because hey, we’re all gonna die one day, so whatevs. Lol.

Anyway, below are some literary devices and their corresponding examples from the poem that you can consider:

·         Anastrophe – switch in normal word order (“Half sunk a shattered visage lies”, l.4)

·         Transferred epithet / hypallage –  when an adjective qualifies a noun other than the person/object it is actually describing (“sneer of cold command”, l.5)

·         Synecdoche – when one part of a person/object stands in for the whole (“The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed”, l.8)

·         Pun – “Nothing beside remains”, l.12)

·         Alternate rhyme (not perfect though)

·         Diction, specifically the suffixation of “-less” – (“trunkless legs of stone”, l.2; “these lifeless things”, l.7; “boundless and bare”, l.11)

Most importantly, how do these devices relate to the bigger idea of ‘Ozymandias’? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Share with me in the comments below!

Photo credits: Alfred Clint (Portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley)

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