Shelley’s Romanticism in Ozymandias

December 30, 2020 by Essay Writer


Romanticism primarily struck English artistic, literary, and intellectual culture during a time of political reform and upheaval, coinciding with the Age of Revolution. This period of change allowed for the revisitation and revision of medieval works, turning them mostly into subjective poetry which emphasized the depths of the poets’ psychology. The emphasis on emotions above logic brought exploration of the realms of fantasy and imagination, in addition to an unbridled passion for nature and ancient relics of the past. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” exemplifies these qualities of the Romantic Age, and serves as an example of Literary Romanticism.

As per its title, this poem discusses what is left of Ozymandias, the Egyptian Pharaoh Rameses II, and the remnants of his legacy based on the image of his statue falling apart in the desert. The poem first begins with a general view of the statue—two severed stone legs and a crumbling face resting in the sand—before delving into more detailed descriptions like the stern expression on the statue’s face and the inscription on its pedestal. The engraved words present a proclamation of pride: Ozymandias was the “King of Kings” and all who stumble upon what is left of him should tremble and “despair” at his might. This statement, unfortunately, falls upon deaf ears and is only greeted by the vast, lonely expanse of the desert sands ahead.

“Ozymandias” is told from the perspective of a speaker who meets a traveler with a story to share and recalls the details of the said traveler’s tale. This poem mainly consists of the persona quoting the traveler’s words, the former only speaking very briefly to provide context on how the latter fits into the rest of the poem. Therefore, there are little to no descriptions of how this speaker felt towards Ozymandias. However, the second speaker of this poem, the traveler, sheds more light onto their attitude towards what they witnessed during their journey. Despite the statue’s decaying visage, the traveler makes note of how Ozymandias’s eroded sneer was “mocked” by the sculptor’s hands, thus presenting the view that everything eventually falls to dust.

This poem is a sonnet written as a block of text in iambic pentameter. There are 14 lines, irregular and run-on, following a ABABACDCEDEFEF rhyme scheme. This poetic form conveys power and might, especially when read aloud, and builds a sense of lyricism. The poem is then reminiscent of a parable or lament, expressing deep emotion and presenting a moral lesson. Similarly, the use of figurative devices are also used to convey meaning in this poem. There is extremely strong imagery in the descriptions of the broken statue, demonstrating the significance within its shattered state and detailed etchings. Aside from this, the use of assonance in “an antique land” of line 1 and alliteration in line 5’s “cold command” emphasizes the respective mystique of far-off lands and stiffness in Ozymandias’s expression.

“Ozymandias” possesses many themes found within Romantic poems, such as exoticism, mystery, strong emotions, irony, and criticism of higher authority. The descriptions of the bleak desert and implications of the “antique land” represent the Romantics’ strong fascination towards nature, leading to the traveler’s discovery of Ozymandias’s statue. While it may have been intended to be a representation of the pharaoh’s strength and authority, it became a caricature of who Ozymandias was. Eternally locked in a harsh, disapproving expression, his legacy is left to fade into the dust as a tyrant with no followers to “look on [his] works” anymore. Consequently, Shelley criticizes the pompous attitudes of modern political powers and presents the reality that their efforts will disappear along with their boastfulness in the future.

In conclusion, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” is a poem that successfully encapsulates qualities captured in various literary works from the Romantic Period. With a simple story about a fragmented statue found in the desert, Shelley conveys the ideas of exoticism, mystery, and irony, expresses criticism regarding the political authorities of his time, and maintains the strong senses, feelings, and emotions found within Romantic literature.

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