Percy Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ is not exactly a neglected poem. It was an option in my GCSE anthology fifteen years ago. For all I know, it still is. It’s tempting to approach the poem as a kind of relic, like those ‘two vast and trunkless legs of stone’ standing in the desert, a monument that won’t really speak to us.
But Ozymandias does, literally, speak. Reading the poem again after several years away from it (and, more recently, several months of looking around ancient ruins) the first thing that struck me was the number of different voices involved. The poem is a kind of Russian doll, reported speech enclosed within reported speech enclosed within reported speech: Ozymandias on the plinth, the traveller and the narrator.
It all happens very quickly. And not just the grand sweep of history: two words into the second line, someone new is already speaking. Do you pause at ‘said’, or carry straight on? It makes the poem surprisingly difficult to read: you can’t recite it ponderously like some people imagine this kind of poem needs reciting. The play of tone and phrase within the sheer square block of the poem and its metre give ‘Ozymandias’ a kind of glassy, artificial quality, like the sort of stone you might make a statue out of.
That’s one reason, I think, why it hasn’t really aged. Another is that there are few obviously poetic words (‘visage’, I guess) And the rhymes are almost entirely perfect monosyllables, with notable exceptions in despair and appear (Oliver Tearle talks about the whole rhyme scheme here) and the final pair, decay and away, where the open vowels suggest the stretch of the ‘lone and level’ sands.
‘Ozymandias’ is usually described as a poem about hubris: the inevitable decay of empire and the arrogance of power were constant preoccupations in nineteenth century Britain. At the time, the charge hit a little close to home (it still should). The poem was written in competition with Horace Smith, whose own version describes a hunter making their way through the ruins of a future London. Ozymandias asks us to ‘look upon his works’ and despair. Only, there’s nothing there. So we despair even more.
So far so familiar. Yet, at least within the world of the poem, Ozymandias’ works do survive. His words do. So, through the words, do his achievements. Here we are talking about them. That’s the thing about words, words etched in stone especially. It is why ruins have such a hold on the imagination. They persist. Ruins often speak directly, too, from the writing on huge public monumnets to private gravestones or roadside waymarkers. More words are written today than ever, but it’s still possible the future will remember these people more than it will remember us.
On one reading, then, the poem isn’t entitely critical of ambition. The opposite in fact. The King of King’s shattered visage is only ‘half sunk’, both dead and buried and, through the sculptor’s skill in manipulating ‘lifeless things’, curiously and terrifyingly alive. His ‘sneer of cold command’ lives on. The enjambment between lines six and seven only reinforces this: Which yet survive.
Artist and king are complicit. Through one’s art and the other’s influence they both make their mark on the future. Perhaps that ‘sneer’ is Shelley’s, the author of this ‘collosal wreck’, still in command after all these years – the ‘lone and level sands’ only the dead white space around the deathless words.