In the poem “Ozymandias,” by Percy Shelley, a traveler recounts his experience at the site of the statue of Ozymandias, also known as Ramses II. At first reading, the text presents itself as a poem about the fall and decay of a statue. However, upon further examination, the text reveals much more. Based on New Criticism, it is evident that the poem actually illustrates the notion that nothing lasts forever. Despite all of the power that one acquires in life, the material possessions will not last forever.
The text reveals many intricate details about the scene that the traveler encounters. The language in the poem suggests that Ozymandias was a mighty and authoritative ruler. The “vast” (2) legs of stone suggest that the king was great in size and stature and implies that he was a mighty and powerful ruler. The word “vast” alludes to the immeasurable size of his kingdom. Also the description of the head suggests a stern and serious ruler. He is described as having a “frown,” (4) and “sneer of cold command” (5). These words illustrate that Ozymandias had a look of distaste and scorn on his face. This description also alludes to his pride and arrogance. These descriptions give insight into the type of powerful ruler that Ozymandias was.
The traveler’s description also gives a visual picture of the actual statue a present time. He states: “Half sunk, a shattered visage lies (4). This description, vividly illustrates the remnants of the statue. Also from the term “shattered” (4), implies that the statue broke suddenly or violently. It alludes to more than a simple break in the statue; shatter implies complete destruction.
The poem is constructed in sonnet form. In the octet a vivid scene of mass destruction is painted, leaving the visual of a dilapidated statue in the desert. All that remains of the statue are the legs and the head. In the sestet, the words of Ozymandias are left: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” (10-11). This passage is ironic because the king boasts of his great power and the impressiveness of his works. However,this contradicts with the scene that is given. The texts paints a picture of a less than impressive scene. All of the mighty works that he boasts of are gone. Also the fact that these words are written on the “pedestal” (9) insinuates that Ozymandias believed he was above everyone else, looking down on them. However, in reality all that remains of the great ruler is a decrepit statue. All traces of his great power have crumbled into dust.
The poem uses many words and phrases that allude to Ozymandias’ greater than life persona. However, these descriptions do not comply with the scene of destruction. The irony of the situation relates to the theme of the poem. Ozymandias believed that his kingdom would remain forever. However, all the material possession in the world were not enough to sustain his power. In the end his words take on a meaning different from what he intended: To “look on my (his) works” now, is truly to see “despair” (11).
Shelley, Percy B. “Ozymandias” Bedford Introduction to Literature. 5th ed. Michael Myer. Ed. Boston: Bedford, 1999. 118.