What Can We Steal From Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Ozymandias,” poem
Author: Percy Bysshe Shelley
Date of Work: 1818
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem is anthologized all over the place.  Thanks to its brevity and inclusion in the public domain, I have also reproduced it below.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Material

Text of the Poem:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
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, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

How stressed out do you get when the dishes aren’t done?  Did it really bum you out when your kid hit your car with a Nerf ball and left a microscopic scratch?  Good news!  In twenty years, no one will care.  In fifty years, no one will remember.  In one hundred years, no one will remember anything but your name…if you’re lucky.  Sorry to be such a bummer, but it’s true.  “Ozymandias” is a simple but powerful poem.  The narrator recounts a story he or she heard from someone else about an ancient ruin.  Amidst the broken statuary is a pedestal proclaiming the name and power of the king who once ruled the area.  The statement is a bit impotent, you’ll agree: Ozymandias’ power and kingdom are long, long gone.

Shelley doesn’t try to do too much in the poem.  He has one big, complicated idea to communicate and does so through a powerful example.  We’ve all seen amazing pictures of the Sphinx (if we haven’t been lucky enough to see the Sphinx itself).  Can you believe that the whole face was painted?  As astounding as that sculpture is, we’re really only seeing a ghost of its original grandeur.  The anecdote Shelley tells keys into the kind of image we all know: a Greek temple, the pyramids, those Buddhas of Bamiyan (the ones the Taliban destroyed), Mount Rushmore, the footprints on the Moon.  These great works of man will someday be wiped away by eternity and time.

Why did Shelley choose to make the sonnet an anecdote?   Perhaps some smart Shelley scholar will tell me the real reason, but I think that the poem is that much stronger because the ‘witnessing’ in the poem is not even first-hand.  Ozymandias is not even significant enough for the narrator him or herself to have gone and seen the ruins.  If poor Ozzy is remembered at all, it’s for being a shattered visage that you don’t even bother to see yourself.

What Can We Steal?

  • Challenge your writer friends and let them challenge you, too!  “Ozymandias” was written as a response to a poem written by Shelley’s friend, Horace Smith.  The first sonnet is written on the same subject and was published in The Examiner.  Shelley shrugged his shoulders and thought, “Cool idea, man.  It’s time for a friendly competition.”  (Shelley won the Ozymandias battle.)  Why not trade ideas with a friend?  Why not compose a story or poem or song based upon the same idea they were using?
  • Use the power of brevity.  If your idea is complicated enough, people will want to engage with it, no matter how simply it is stated.

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