Reading Shelley’s Ozymandias again

“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.’ ”

Recently I reread this poem, only to realise that I’d entirely missed the fairly obvious point. It is not that time brought low the monument of Ozymandias, rather, it completed it. The king’s words are not falsified by time; rather time has made them true in a new sense, a fuller sense. As the king’s works are now just sand and nothing else, the meaning of the inscription has changed from: Look upon my great carved statue and despair to a new sense Look upon the sand and despair. The second meaning, imbued by time, is a far more awful warning for the mighty. Time has mocked this aspiration to create despair not by denying it, but by granting it more fully, it has created an odd kind of natural dramatic irony using nothing but the action of weather and gravity across millennia.

Amazing Shelley.

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About timothyscriven

I study philosophy at Sydney University. In the grand scheme, I'm not very important.
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3 Responses to Reading Shelley’s Ozymandias again

  1. This is always implicit on this blog, but it’s worth saying clearly here that I do not regard this as in any way a novel thought. I’m sure lots of people have had it, it’s just something interesting that had previously escaped me.

  2. Edward McMahon says:

    The thing that causes me the greatest despair is that the everything passes to the sands of time; not only the mighty, but also the meagre.

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