What a small poem. Ozymandias is tiny, really. Neatly condensed and deceptively packed into sonnet form, it’s densely crammed with narrators, images, hubris, and the devastating, eternal nothingness at the end. Ozymandias spills out beyond its form, churning up a tempest of imagery for the reader, for whom it is impossible to do just one reading. Shelley’s apparent ease with which he crafts this poem is enviable; there’s an effortless quality to his writing.
Shelley was a second-gen Romantic – not that the Romantics ever referred to themselves as such. No – Shelley was one of the Satanic School, so labelled by a het-up and up-tight Bob Southey. I would imagine that Shelley quite enjoyed membership of this, sitting in the Romantic naughty corner, fighting for the rights of the underdog. Although this blog is very much about Ozymandias, you may find Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy enlightening – for above all else, we see a more direct attack on a politician, such was Shelley’s rage at the massacre of peaceful protesters at Peterloo:
I met Murder on the way –
He had a mask like Castlereagh –
Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy remains a long-standing marker of the massacre; a soul-felt howl at the abuse of political power and the deaths of innocents, and a cri du coeur on behalf of the masses to rise up:
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few!
This could serve as a backdrop to the teaching of Ozymandias – not a chronological backdrop, as The Masque of Anarchy was written a year after Ozymandias, but as a backdrop to Shelley’s character and stance. You may be interested to look up Byron’s response to Castlereagh’s suicide, too.
Ozymandias is immediately less direct, for although it’s a commentary on power, the multiple narrators and the multiple events in the poem give us a buffer from the impact. Arguably, the choice of Ozymandias as a target does too; for surely Shelley did not burn with the same rage for Rameses II as he did for the contemporary oppressors of his time. Let us turn to the opening:
I met a traveller from an antique land
The very first word could easily be taken as a person, a narrator, with a referent. I have marked essays in which students earnestly claim that we are ‘made to feel close’ to the narrator with this first-person pronoun, or in which the narrator is somehow believable as a result of this opening. I’m not sure about this. Who is this ‘I’? It’s almost spectral in nature, like Dickens’ narrator of A Christmas Carol, hovering at our shoulder. This voice in Ozymandias never returns, and while I don’t deny its presence, I deny its significance. We can see that there are tensions pulling at the relationships in the poem; the fleeting relationship between this anonymous, undeveloped ‘I’ and the reader. Then there’s the relationship between this narrator and the traveller, who is handed the reins in haste, it seems. We then have the traveller and the interaction with the destroyed statue, and of course the inscription. This is a poem of relationships, all pulling in different directions, with the resultant poem a distorted chronology of layers of voices. Try plotting a loose timeline of the poem and we see the peak of power is just after the volta. Ozymandias is at the centre of the poem, yet framed by decay and other (crucially) surviving voices.
Rameses is not the point of the poem. It’s almost unhelpful to go into this level of detail – the who, the how, and the why of the Pharaoh does not really help students to glean much, either on the mark-scheme or for their understanding of the piece. Perhaps looking at the voices (not just counting them, but really considering the relationships) and considering the distance created by Shelley would be a more useful exercise in the precious time we have.
After the initial speaker has moved on to who knows where, we are left with the traveller. It is this voice who deals the striking blows to the King – exposing the fatal flaw with every word, and every piece of punctuation, in fact. Consider the full stop on line 3:
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand
While students blithely comment on the caesura, some struggle to get to the heart of the impact of this disruption to the line. For me, this stop creates a physical space between the head and the legs. It’s grotesque. A once strong leader reduced to ‘trunkless legs’ and a ‘shattered visage’, crudely separated with this blunt punctuation. This is another relationship to consider – one of physical distance within and between one character.
The traveller tells us too of the evident subversion of the sculptor, who committed the ‘sneer’ and ‘wrinkled lip’ to stone. Yet we are also given an understanding of Ozymandias’ heart, for this sculptor has done more than just represent the physical – for while the sculptor’s hand ‘mocked’ the work, the heart of Ozymandias ‘fed’ life into this colossal piece. Students need to be careful here; we have all read essays where ‘mocked’ is understandably conflated with scorn from Ozymandias. ‘Mocked’ is indeed a pun – but it is not one of the disdain of Ozymandias. Shelley is giving us a sculptor who sculpts with such perfection that we see this lump of stone as a complex, cruel man – we know him by heart – but the sculptor’s hand also brings about mocking of the King and his cruel ways. He presents him for what he really is.
The narrator of line one steps aside for the traveller, who hands over to Ozymandias, before the traveller returns. The word palimpsest keeps popping up in my life this week – it’s odd how that happens sometimes – and one of the occasions was in relation to this poem and the stripping back of the speakers for the next. I wish there were a way to construct a 3-dimensional representation of this poem, complete with temporality and the almost paradoxical nature of cramming so much, so effortlessly, into these 14 lines, spilling out into a clear and stark warning to those at the helm.
 Zachary Sng, ‘The Construction of Lyric Subjectivity in Shelley’s “Ozymandias”’ Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 37, No. 2 (Summer, 1998), pp. 217-233
Featured Image – ‘Tell me… a ghost story’ by billstrain. Listed for reuse under the creative commons licence on Google.