Ozymandias: a commentary

The premise is simple. I pasted Ozymandias below and wrote my thoughts about each line. This is by no means an exhaustive reading of the poem; such a thing is certainly beyond my capabilities.

Ozymandias: a commentary

(P&C commentaries

The premise is simple.

I pasted Ozymandias below and wrote my thoughts about each line. This is by no means an exhaustive reading of the poem; such a thing is certainly beyond my capabilities. This is simply what came out of my head. Why am I doing this? Partly it’s to test myself — do I know the poem as well as I think I do? Partly it’s to help others — perhaps you’ll read this, and it’ll give you an idea you can use in the classroom. Partly it’s because this is what I want students to do — wrestle with a text, weigh it up, probe it. That’s what I’ve done. Next up — next week — is London is London.

I met a traveller from an antique land,

The opening 1st person pronoun gives an immediate lie. It suggests that what follows will be personal to the speaker, but this speaker hands narrative duties to a stranger in the next line. I’m struck by how differently this poem handles the first person pronoun opening compared to Blake’s London — both start with confident, personal declaratives, but Blake’s poem remains painfully personal. Shelley’s poem is one of obfuscation, of gradual reveal, not unlike the slow drawing of a curtain. The statue of the titular Ozymandias is hidden, like the Duchess in MLD usually is, but within the rhetoric of the poem itself. This first line is the first layer, serving to distance the reader from the figure teased in the title. Questions arise — who is this “I”? Who is the traveller? From which antique land has he come? And that’s before we even dwell on the ambiguity of ‘antique’ — does Shelley mean that the land is ancient, or that it is still redolent of the ancient? How can one come from an antique land, unless one is antique oneself?

All this makes for a mysterious opening, one almost Gothic in its preoccupation with strangers and strange lands. The strangeness percolates throughout the poem, because most of its questions aren’t answered; they are, on the surface, mere framing. We never learn who the traveller is, or how he came to meet the speaker, or under what circumstances or to what end he tells his tale. It isn’t even really a tale, but a description — what urges him to tell it?

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

And with that, the original speaker disappears from the poem. This poem is like a series of masks — Shelley wears the mask of his original speaker, who wears the mask of the traveller, who wears the mask of Ozymandias himself. Like Browning, Shelley creates voices to hide behind, camouflaging himself in his own poem. Why? Perhaps this is a literary homage to his self—imposed exile in Italy, not long begun when he wrote the poem, and perhaps his triple—masking is a form of existential musing on the transitory nature of the self. One can see how the broken statue functions as a memento mori. However, it seems that in the world of the poem there are two types of death: there is the death of the physical body, and then a second death, an indeterminate number of years later, when any trace that person is expunged from the collective human mind. This naturally explains why many self—proclaimed great men become obsessed with leaving a legacy — but this poem seems to say that sooner or later, that pursuit is revealed to have been in vain. However, things are not so simple, for ironically Shelley’s poem reinvigorates the ancient king, and keeps him alive in the popular imagination a little longer than would have been the case. The poem, then, is at once a mockery of legacy and an ironic preservation of it.

Permit me a slight tangent here — but there is a parallel with Shelley himself. The tale goes that when Shelley’s body was burned his heart remained. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant; the fact that the story exists is what matters, because it is now part of Shelley’s legacy. Writing poetry is like having a statue commissioned — who knows how people will look upon it — and you — once you’re gone?

I’ve got more to discuss here. The traveller introduces us to big legs, but they’re soon diminished. With the sweep of an ‘and’, the statue is cut down to size. But let us consider the order of revelation; at the end of this line, we do not know what is being described, save the legs themselves, and we do not yet know the desert location. What we have, instead, is an image of incomplete humanity. We have legs — symbolic of movement, support, progress — but no substance, no markers of personhood. What’s more, we’re given a glimpse of humanity — legs — but this is soon nullified by the next bit of information, that they’re stone. Perhaps this is on the nose, but what we’re dealing with here are those who are at once gutless (‘trunkless’) and who have hearts of stone (as we’ll see later in the poem). Tyrants, the poem is saying, are cowards, men of little conviction, save for when it concerns building legacies. A word on legacies — Shelley was all about spontaneity, living in the moment. This was a man who grabbed life by the quick and rode wave after instinctual wave. Worrying about one’s legacy was pointless when the world at present was in the state it was in. The mockery in this poem is therefore possibly a mockery of man’s obsession with legacy, for the twin forces of time and nature — those unknowable, immutable forces — put paid to any such attempts to live beyond one’s own life.

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Now the line break delays, and then reveals, the desert location. Why the legs, followed by the location? Shelley’s revelation of detail is almost cinematic; one can see the camera in one’s head tracking the shot, panning to different aspects of the statue. Note that Shelley again chooses to break the line before a revelation — what is near the legs? The true, horribly ironic extent of the destruction of this statue is yet be revealed. Another poet who likes to delay and tease is Browning — hardly surprising, given his obsession with Shelley early on, which can be seen in his universally—despised early verses. In My Last Duchess, the story is told in tantalising snippets by a stranger whose word we do not feel entirely comfortable trusting. Both poets are entertainers, but there’s something deeper at work. They both play on — and up to — the human propensity for morbid curiosity. Both poems are about colossi — though what both are saying about each colossus is less obvious. In one reading, Browning’s Duke gets away with his crime as he prepares to marry another young woman; in another reading, the witless Duke’s ego destroys his chance at a new marriage. Either way, we have a clear link between the two poems — one that possibly allows us to compare two presentations of hubris.

A note on sand — this is a fiction of Shelley’s, and a deviation from the likely situation of the real statue (other divergences include the statue’s standing, as opposed to seated, pose, but such is poetic licence). Sand is most certainly symbolic; its inclusion as a metaphor for transitoriness would be on the nose where it not delivered obliquely within the poem. This was a poet who hated didacticism: ‘Didacticism is my abhorrence’ he declared in 1819. He preferred poetry to allude, to coax, to seduce, — anything but the clumsiness of sermonising. This makes for an interesting comparison with My Last Duchess, whose singular message is a source of debate even nowadays. Browning never shook off his Shelleyan fanboyism, and Wordsworth’s extract from The Prelude is similarly impressionistic. This makes all three of these poems worth comparing to the more impressionistic modern poets, especially Dharker, whose Tissue is best seen as images upon images, like beads on a rosary, each invoking moments of human quietude.

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

This line picks up the sibilant alliteration started with sand and deploys it as tricolon. It has taken a while for the poem to get to the statue’s face; the face, when we do get to it, is compartmentalised to see almost non—human. There is a whiff of the description of the monster from Frankenstein here — ‘I had selected his features as beautiful’, but yet together they’re a horror. A similar macabre — an inhumanity, an uncanniness — is alluded to, allowing, as the face is revealed, the reader to draw parallels between the two types of inhumanity on display. Furthermore, this ties in with the references to stone and trunklessness elsewhere to highlight the literal inhumanity of the statue.

There’s more — a whiff of revolutionary France here, or else the enduring image of a beheaded tyrant? Madame Guillotine wasn’t the first to take heads from aristocrats; a blade to the neck has been the death of choice for many such figures throughout history — it’s just so damned symbolic! It isn’t enough the remove the head and lay it at the feet of the statue; Shelley has to mire it in dirt and destroy it (the onomatopoeia is deliciously redolent of destruction). This was a man who hated tyrants — see his poems about Napoleon for proof.

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Now Shelley catalogues the facial expressions on the face itself. The choice to list the attributes syndetically slows the poem; once again, it is like Shelley is in complete control of the camera. He makes us gaze upon the face of — I was going to type evil — but maybe a better word would be power. Power is ugly, a corruptive and all—consuming blight. Just look at how ugly London becomes when those in power hold that power absolutely. The face is, naturally, pulling a menacing expression, but the description does double duty — each of the expressions is one of pure hatred and misery. Power is miserable; all that remains is the boast of the self.

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

This poem has its own Fra Pandolf — here, the artist is a sculptor. An odd inclusion, given that it diverts the attention away from the face, which, by this point, is welcome. But why else choose to mention him, and the fact that he reproduced Ozymandias accurately? Perhaps Shelley is alluding to the troubled life of the artist — an artist must document the truth of the thing, no matter how ugly that truth might be, and Shelley saw ugliness wherever he looked. Duffy’s War Photographer makes for an intriguing comparison here, because he is the ultimate documenter — ostensibly — of the truth of raw human suffering. And yet, in a postmodern twist, the images he takes become unreal — they barely register a reaction once they are printed. This is because his creations aren’t made with any sense of the artistic self — he points his camera, as a voyeur, and he snaps. He is not a participant in his own art; the trauma would be too great. Shelley does participate in his art, but he does so from behind the scenes, bending language to his will.

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

Here, Shelley presents the impossibility of death in the mind of someone living (this is a paraphrase, incidentally, of the name of Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde shark). Parts of Ozymandias aren’t dead, because art keeps him living. Here, Shelley is alluding to legacies of all artists — their art keeps their voices alive when the bodies are dust.

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

More compartmentalisation. Shelley seems determined to reduce this statue to the sum of its parts. I’ve never been quite happy with this line — hand that mocked who? Heart that fed who / what? I tend to read ‘mocked’ as another example of doubling — it references the mockery of other leaders, later explicitly stated on the pedestal, but also the idea of imitation — Ozymandias is a product of his time, and has not become this in a vacuum. Corrupt worlds beget corrupt leaders, who in turn corrupt the world still more.

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

The symbolism of pedestal is so obvious that I shall not discuss it here. Instead, I note the choice ‘appear’. Were they not visible before? ‘Appear’ perhaps is designed to make the words appear more ‘alive’ — they appear as if in real time, as though the statue communicates with us across time and space. This is, of course, what poetry does.

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

There has been so much written about this — I don’t have anything to add.

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

And this. I suppose I could mention the line break. Once again, Shelley makes us wait; he repeats a similar delaying tactic with the caesura in the next line.

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

If this poem is about art, this is the trickiest bit, as I’ve discussed earlier. The statue remains, but the works do not. Perhaps this is a manifestation of Shelley’s fears — after all, his works were not appreciated during his lifetime with anything approaching the same reverence we have today. He fears being forgotten — this is the same man who tried to preserve the tragic Keats in his elegy Adonaïs — and his work not standing the test of time. Perhaps the decaying wreck in the desert is Shelley’s worst nightmare — it is a metaphor for a man who, having died, becomes mere shattered fragments of what he was, his work forgotten. Fortunately for him, the opposite came true.

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

I’ll deal with these last two lines together. They are elegiac, I think. I’ve written enough about this poem being about art and death, so I’ll mine a different seam in closing. Maybe this poem is, in one way or another, about God and faith. The God we worship is exposed in this poem as naught but a Wreck, pure artifice, man—made. Like the Old Testament’s Yahweh, Ozymandias is a figure of fear who is all but forgotten. Maybe this poem is about imagining a world in which man is not a slave to religious dogma. In its place is a new world, in which one is free to love and speak and live in the manner of one’s choosing. If so, we’re getting closer to that each day, or at least one hopes. For Shelley, such hopes were far off, tales whispered by travellers from antique lands, but the joy of poetry is the handing of the torch from poet to reader, and now we bear the light.

Thank you for reading,