Poetry Analysis — Ozymandias

For English class, we were assigned to create a blog and regularly update it with poetry analysis. I laughed a little inside when I saw my friends setting up their blogs for the first time for the purpose of this assignment (sorry).

Ozymandias

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

–Percy Bysshe Shelley

Shelley wrote this sonnet in 1818, inspired by Egyptian sculpture. The poem is centred around an ancient and ruined monolith. The monolith is a powerful symbol for a greater message, and besides that the poem also contains some other strong symbolism.


The central subject of the poem, the ancient monolith, stands ruined, forever expressing a statement of glory, even long after the actual glory of the structure is gone. The message, still outwardly portraying self-glory, becomes ironic, instead stating desolation rather than glory. This strong contrast between the message and the actual state of the monolith symbolizes the inevitability of decay, and to an extent death: however grand something is, it will eventually decay, one way or another. Overall, the description of the monolith gives the poem a tone of hopelessness and gives a message of the acceptance of the unresolved.

In addition to the monolith, the poem contains other symbolism that contributes to this greater message. The story is told from the perspective of an unrelated narrator, completely detached from the monolith, never having seen it. Because the narrator has to hear from “a traveller from an antique land” to know about the monolith, the monolith must be a rather obscure figure – in other words, it must have lost its former glory. In addition, the use of the word “traveller” as opposed to, say, an ordinary citizen of the surrounding area, subtly implies that Ozymandias’s civilization had collapsed, leading to a diaspora of its constituents, with all of the former inhabitants as ‘travellers’ rather than plain ‘inhabitants’.

It is difficult to portray an idea with such a limited medium as poetry. In expressing the idea, one has also think about fitting the necessary limitations of the kind of poem that they write. As such, inexperienced poets are often unable to portray the idea that they try to express in an effective way. What separates a truly artistic poem from an ordinary one is the ability to express the idea while at the same time keeping the rhythmic quality and short length of a poem. As such, ‘Ozymandias’, given its succinctness and regular rhythmic quality and its effective conveying of a greater message, is a truly artistic poem.

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