Percy Bysshe Shelley was born on 4th August, 1792 and died 8th July 1822 and lived through some momentous times. He is famous now as one of England’s most celebrated poets, but he like so many [Van Gogh for example] knew nothing of fame during his life. After his death, people began to talk about his poetry, eventually leading to his rise in fame and popularity. Nowadays, his works are considered highly in the English canon of literature.
He was a lyric poet and close friends with Lord Byron and Mary Shelley, the author of the novel, Frankenstein. This poem, called ‘Ozymandias’ is one that at first glance, for the young mind, can be somewhat confusing, so if you have just read this for the first time and are thinking using acronyms like WTF, then you are in the majority; mostly everyone reacts like that the first time, to this poem.
But then they read on and delve deeper and find that it can be understood in its context. Here is a man playing with language, yet another of those wonderful poets who brighten up our days with their words. Taken from the perspective of one person speaking, the reader immediately sees that this person meets “a traveller from an antique land,” making them think of a land far away maybe, that is as ancient as the sand, possibly a north African country, like Egypt, or southern Mediterranean, like Malta. Clearly this is a meeting between one person and a man. If we assume Shelley is meaning it to be autobiographical, then it is a meeting between him and a travelling man he is recounting.
This man then tells a riddle, of sorts. He says “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desert.” If this is meant as the meander into a story, then one ultimately asks what kind of story will it be. People from away from the UK can tell some very colourful stories from their differing cultures, so the man hearing the story is expecting something grandiose, maybe on a scale with the storytellers of old. As the man continues we find that in the story, “near them on the sand, half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies.”
What do you think that means?
The answer is in the word “visage” for when we look upon someone and their face is downcast, or happy, or joyous, we see a visage that reflects that. In this instance it is a “shattered visage” perhaps showing that tiredness and decay has set in. The visage in question has a “frown and wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command.” It is as if the coldness of the man is being shown in his sneer and his gaze.
But then in the next few words we see that this shattered face is none other than that of a statue, for we see the words “tell that its sculptor” which paints more of the picture in for us. It is as if Shelley has seen a “bust” or a face carved in stone somewhere and he has personified it into life in this poem. The face is one that has “passions” grained into it and just as the statue or face has these lines, it is the sculptor that has put them there; the master at work on the artwork, carving out the lines he creates. This then, is a poem that is an homage to those wonderful people who have made things with their hands and used their skills over the years to create the beautiful things we see in the museums nowadays. To Shelley, this work of art is sheer beauty. This entrenched face, full of the scars of life, is one that has lived and commanded respect.
The sculptor has “stamp’d on these lifeless things” and made them into something with added beauty. To Shelley, this man should be praised even though there is the reference to “the hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.” These are negative words indeed and appear as a critique of the sculptor, or more perhaps, a critical and social comment against the people of the time. Indeed, on the bottom of the piece of art work, we are told that “these words appear: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” This is a reference to the ancient Egyptian ruler, or Pharaoh, Rameses II and is meant to reflect his power and glory that he insisted he get from his subjects. Any research into him will show you just what life was like for the ordinary person at that time; tough.
The Egyptians were at one time, the powerhouse of the world and most of you know the story of Moses and the Israelites and their freedom from bondage. But I wonder, just how many of you know about this Egyptian ruler? Go on, Google the name and do some background reading. It can and will be used in your exam answers, or Controlled Assessments [for this year only]. Added detail like that in an exam answer will get you the A* you seek. So this poem is about a man, possibly Shelley, seeing the statue or bust of the ancient Egyptian ruler, Rameses II and his reaction to it [Google the title of the poem and see what I mean on Wikipedia – not always accurate but in this case yes].
You have to be very careful here however, because something is happening in this poem that you more than likely will not be told about by your teacher. Let me explain with an example. Go with me on this; let us say you like films. Let us say you are a fan of the actor George Clooney. Assuming you are female and like him, as an actor and a man, whether it be in one way or another, when you see an image of him, you would react in an odd manner, in a way that would be considered not normal for you. You would be over excited.
When I went to the Tate Modern a few years ago now, in London, to see the Pablo Picasso exhibition, I did so wanting to see that but also because there was a painting there I wanted to see, among others, a painting called Beatta Beattrix, by one of the Pre-Raphaelite painters. I had studied it in depth and when I got there, I looked round the Picasso and then went to the Pre-Raph exhibit on my own, for a private rendezvous with the painting that had captivated me all year when studying it.
I looked at it, at her, for over an hour. I checked her out from every angle imaginable. I now know every single centimetre of that canvas and I am in love with it. Seeing her two inches from the canvas, close up and personal, made my knees go weak. It was one of the most breathtaking things I have ever done [and sounds very odd when typed here] but it had a lasting effect on me. If that effect would have caused me to write a poem, then I wonder what I would have written. I too, like Shelley, may have penned something that today would be considered a classic poem to be studied. Clearly, I will have to die for my poetry to be famous!
But the same thing is happening here in this poem and we are told that “nothing beside remains: round the decay of that colossal wreck.” The art work is in tatters, looking rather worn out and grim; it is “boundless and bare” and suffering with the time and age it has stood there. It is, because of age and decay, a poor reflection of its former glory. As the “lone and level sands stretch far away” we are led to see here an image of decay, of ageing, of death and misery in something that once would have been majestic and wonderful to behold.
It is then, a poem that shares the idea that nothing is permanent. Even rulers and their glory fade with time and age as the years pass into each other. There is a sense of impermanence throughout this poem, suggesting that what Shelley is trying to say is that nothing lasts, so make the best of what life brings you. After all, it only lasts a short span of time.