Shelley’s “Ozymandias” is a comment on the ephemeral nature of fame, power and glory. It was published by P.B. Shelley in The Examiner. “Ozymandias” was penned during a friendly competition with Shelley’s companion Horace Smith. The statue on which the poem is based is quite famous and several greats including Napoleon and Giovanni Belzoni had tried to claim the same. Therefore the poem may have been inspired by the statue itself or the reputation it garnered. The poem is based on King Ramses II of Egypt (1322). He conquered the Hitties and married their princess. King Ramses II is said to have conquered Ethiopia and established a fleet on the Mediterranean. Third person narrative renders the tone of the poem more effective and lends an impersonal objectivity to the observations made .A 2008 travel guide to Egypt Lonely Planet talks of it referring to the dilapidated fallen statue of Rameses II at the Ramesseum, a memorial temple built by Ramesses at Thebes(Egypt).
The poem is in the form of a sonnet and is utilized in a ironical stance. Particularly as the sonnet form was used to eulogize a person. The statue was built to venerate his positive aspects, however ironically his negative qualities are highlighted by the same. The inscription is meant to be a statement on power but ironically trivializes the same as the decrepit statue lies on the deserted desert.
Antiquity of the place is intended to lend the poem a sense of historicity. The two vast legs that was once larger than life, but now its trunk lies missing, the visage is shattered. That is, the foundation itself is shattered now. The visage is the very identity of a person and lays buried .It connotes that a person’s existence after death that has only ephemeral value in this world. ‘A shattered visage lies’ has a pun on the word ‘lies’ in that the visage lies on the ground, but also ‘lies’ as in it is uttering an untruth that are the lines inscribed on the statue. The figure sports a Mephistophelean expression and disdain on his wrinkled lip that echoes also his age. The face is now half-sunk implying that the sun that once the centre of the universe has now set. Half-sunk may also signify that it is divided between life and death, in a state of limbo. The commands imparted are cold, devoid of emotions and mechanical in nature exacted to extract instant submission.
The sculptor perfectly captured the expression of the autocrat reminding us of the impact it had on a mere artist. His expressions and emotions outlive his living body and are ‘stamped’ like a signature on the statue. His body is now a ‘thing’ and ‘lifeless’ but his tyranny in the form of memories live on. The poem thus also testifies to the power of art. The hand that ‘mocked them’ is an adaptation of the idiomatic phrase ‘the hand that rocked them’ connoting the one who ruled. Also, heart here functions as a metonym for the person himself. He fed on the emotions or tragedy of other people to rise to this stature. The actual words on the pedestal are in transliteration; they have been translated by the poet lending universal significance to the theme of autocratic power. The most detested name in Islam is Malikul Amlak(King of Kings) as it seethes with arrogance .We find the epithet on the inscription on the statue.
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair
Shelley was against autocracy and hailed revolutionary changes like the French Revolution. The autocrat’s works are physical pursuits that unlike art and poetry do not outlive the creator. Therefore, the poem highlights the transience of power and physical pursuits. The mortal memory of Ramses II lies juxtaposed against vast stretches of sand emblematic of immortality.
© Rukhaya MK 2012