Shelley’s quintessential metaphor on a reprobate monarchy dominating 19thcentury Britain is foreboded before the first line is read. The title, Greek for ‘ruler of air’ sets the tone of absurd hubris and arrogance, almost to a point beyond satire, almost caricature. Shelley, having read about the Egyptian ruler Rameses II as a ruthless military man and megalomaniac, sees opportunity for synecdoche, inviting his readers to establish parallels with the present monarchy. His target is of course George III, an obstinate king, highly criticised for his refusal to accede to the American province, their right to independence. But it is not just George that Shelley uses his art to excoriate. It is anyone in authority arrogating the right to rule over another, anyone who suppresses the freedoms of the individual. For the Romantic poet, such oppression is the very death of the soul.
The 3rdperson tale in the opening line ostensibly distances the poet from critics establishing a line of treason, but probably more likely places the metaphor in a wider context, a universal, timeless pandemic. The antique land could be anywhere, from any time in history, such is the precedence of despotism. The vastness of the statue summarily emphasises the contrast of its destruction, the ellipsis wasting no time in directing the listener to the focus of the tale: the shattered visage symbolically half sunk, nature and time having its way with it. The frown and sneer of cold command cleverly introduces the antipathy, evoking imaginings of a man full of hatred and condescension, but worse, willing to exercise both. The pretension of significance, imperatively instructing ‘ye Mighty’ to look on his works and despair, encapsulates the characteristics of historical tyrants, obsessed with power, but vanity also: mine’s bigger than yours. Shelley can’t help himself either in having a quick gibe at the Church, the ‘king of kings’ a reference to Jesus, forcing the connection between the hubris of Ozymandias and an institution Shelley openly detests, not only for its hypocrisy in wealth disparity, but its insistence of the soul to lose its freedom and surrender to a higher power.
Having suitably disgusted us with the character, Shelley adroitly denudes the figure by utilising the caesura in ‘Nothing beside remains’. The sharp juxtaposition of his arrogance with the reality annihilates the ruler, and the remainder of the poem cruelly exposes his insignificance with repeated alliterations drawing our attention to the desolation in which he is now enveloped.
Time then, is the ultimate ruler, obliterating everything to dust. The allegory is clear: we are but specks in a larger scheme, and humility and fairness are more desirable constants than delusions of power. But notably, art also has its power. It is the story of the sculptor, who well those passions read, that we are left with, the sculptor who, brazenly recording the culture they find themself in, has placed him or herself in great jeopardy by doing so. This too is the poet, ineludibly aware of the metaphor’s inevitable controversy, but nevertheless compelled to write and chronicle and satisfy one of art’s central goals: in serving as a critical lens, as Johnson’s ‘legislator of mankind’, as watchdog over the workings and exploitations within a culture. Shelley, in composing the poem with such sophistication, employing the strict structure of the sonnet form and the consistent iambic pentameter, only broken for specific emphasis, serves the second central function equally as well, a function encapsulating and epitomising the Romantic movement: art must be beautiful too, as therein lies the power to translate the message.
This essay is part of a series of essays on texts within the EDUQAS English Literature course. Other poetry essays include: As Imperceptibly As Grief, Excerpt from The Prelude. Macbeth essays: here, and here. Lord of the Flies essay: here
Other essays can be found on the Cloud 9 Writing platform
Image used from here
I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more English teaching resources.