Percy Bysshe Shelley in his Ozymandias illustrates the vanity of human greatness and the failure of all attempts to immortalize human grandeur. Ozymandias was a great Egyptian king, a life-like statue of whom was made to immortalize him. But now the statue lies broken and disfigured, and all around it is a barren desert. Though he was hailed as a great king long back, it is ironical that his works which he boasted of once was now shattered into dust. His works have all disappeared including the whole civilization that was his credit. This is exactly what is meant by destructive power of history. Now what is left is just a ruined statue which is the remnant of the king symbolizing human beings' hubris and a most authoritative declaration of the irrelevance of human beings compared to the passage of time. Hence it is realized beyond doubt that the thematic concerns of this poem include, all great things decay in course of time, however great they are; the power of art prevails for long time compared to human achievements; and arrogance of humanity places human beings in an ethereal world which neither has life nor existence.
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The images used to explicate these thematic concerns are, no doubt, very appropriate and telling. We have the statue of the king to show that though the king has died, his statue exists. The poem itself stands for the everlasting nature of art, and at the same time preserves the statue too. The desert presented is a vast wasteland that is symbolic of things that are forgotten as time passes, however worthy it is.
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In form this poem is a sonnet. The sonnet form was not really suited to Shelley's genius because the sonnet imposes restraints and restriction that could mar his imagination and feeling. For this reason, Shelley wrote very few sonnets, and failed to achieve distinction in them. This poem, for instance does not rigidly obey the accepted conventions of the form of the sonnet. The rhyme-scheme does not follow any of the accepted patterns and some of the rhymes are faulty.
But though not flawless it is one of the best sonnets that Shelley wrote. It has earned high praise from critics and is considered a most powerful, imaginative and suggestive poem. Its moral goes home to our hearts with force and vigor. Human glory and pomp are not everlasting. Hammers of decay quickly follow the hammers of construction. Time works havoc with buildings and monuments. But the moral is not directly stated. The poet only presents a picture to our minds and we have ourselves to draw the moral. It is a didactic poem, but its moral is not thrust upon us directly. Shelley said that didacticism was his abhorrence and he did not, therefore, directly preach moral lessons.
There is a touch of melancholy about the poem because it makes us reflect over the vanity of human wishes and the failure of all our efforts to keep our memory alive for ever. The contrast between the past glory of the king and the present condition of the statue is very striking to the mind and emphasizes the moral of the poem. The concluding lines of the poem are particularly remarkable for their suggestiveness. The sonnet contains two note-worthy pictures. One is the picture of the broken statue, a huge wreck, the face of which still wears a frown and the sneer of cold command (lines 4-5). The other is the picture of the lone and level desert, boundless and bare, stretching far away (lines 12-14).
The live portrait of the great king ozymandias is made live by the most effective usage of words like "sneer", "mocked" and "frown". The image that looms large before the reader is that of a powerful king with neither any motivation nor any reason to smile. Again, words like "decay", "lifeless" and "wreck" shows forth the present state of not only the statue but also the state of the sculptor, the people and the civilization. Fragile lives of human beings can hence be considered as one other thematic concern of the poem. Through Ozymandias, Shelley cries out the futility and nihility the life and accomplishments of mankind.
- Percy Bysshe Shelley "Ozymandias" Hoopoe Books, 1999.