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Percy Bysshe Shelley ‘s “Ozymandias”

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  • Pages: 3
  • Word count: 717
  • Category: Poetry

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The central message of Percy Bysshe Shelley ‘s “Ozymandias” is often misinterpreted as a statement about the uselessness of power.  However, Shelley’s true intent was to express and demonstrate that power is fleeting and time, not powerful, is the most influential force in nature.  It is unmistakable that power, if consistently applied,  is substantial and controlling.  The nature of power is not constant but is volatile and ever shifting.  As time, nature, and it’s inhabitants grow and evolve so does power.  Through the use of imperfect sonnet structure, alliteration, and symbolism, Shelley clearly demonstrates that human power is but a hopeful illusion.

            Shelley uses alliteration, through assonance and consonance, to support his powerful word choice.  The first three lines of “Ozymandias” exhibit Shelley’s skill as a master poet and offer a powerful beginning to a poem which still, centuries after it was composed, stirs the human soul. Assonance can be seen in the second line, with the use of the “o” sound in “who and “two” and is continued with the “a” sound in “land” and “vast”.  Consonance of the “s” sound appears throughout the three lines in the words “vast”, “less”, “legs”, and “stone”.  The soft alliteration of “s” contrasts strikingly with the “k” sound that is found in “trunkless”.

The cold “k” sound  is found throughout the poem as the statue is described.  In line 4-5, it connects the images of “shattered”, “cold command”, and  later in “colossal wreck” (line 13) which have the same “k” sound.  The consonance is most compelling in Shelley’s description of the statue’s plague which shows one of literature most well conceived paradox’s: My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings / Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!  / Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal Wreck, (Lines 10-13).  The repetition of “k” in “King of Kings” and “Works” can be linked both to power and decay. Ozymandias’ self proclaimed omnipotence paled in comparison to the chiseling and unforgiving nature of time.

            “Ozymandias” is written in a standard sonnet style, iambic pentameter.  This is the same style that Shakespeare made popular and the following rhyme scheme: ABABCDCDEFEFGG.  However, there are several places were Shelley veers from the traditional form.  In lines 1-4, Shelley adheres strictly to the ABAB format.  In lines 5-8, where the rhyme scheme should be CDCD, but instead appears as ACDC: “command”, “read”, “things” and “fed”.  The distortion continues in like 9-12, where the rhyme should be EFEF but instead is EDEF, with “appear”, “kings”, “despair”, and “decay”. In the final lines of the poem, Shelley fails to close the sonnet with a traditional GG structure.

He uses a variation on the sonnet structure to represent the decaying nature of the statue, and of power in general.  Shelley combines a varied rhyme scheme with broken meter as to symbolize decay.   The broken meter is started in line 3, with “stand in” and continues randomly throughout the poem ending in line 11, with “ye Mighty, and despair!”.  The most dominant instance is in line 8, which coincides with Shelley’s message, “The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed”.  God reminds humans that they are not all powerful and they like all beings in nature must submit to time crushing nature.

            The symbolism in “Ozymandias” is very clear and Shelley is explicit.  God is symbolized by the sculptor of the statue.  The statue symbolizes mankind.  The destruction, decay, and final disappearance of the statue, and Ozymandias’ power, represents the mortality of all human.  The act of allowing time to wipe out the existence of power and complete civilizations is often viewed as God’s way of mocking human nature.

            Through the use of symbolism, varied rhyme and meter, and alliteration Shelley actively conveys his believe that God makes it a point, in all his creatures, to let time equalize all living beings.  He uses symbolism to create vivid images of God, humankind, and the nature of time.  Shelley uses alliteration to support and link these images to the central image of the decaying structure.  Shelley uses these literary devices on a solid structure of imperfect rhyme scheme and meter to demonstrate his belief that humans are not powerful at all.

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