Mighty Despair: Power and Irony in “Ozymandias”
“Ozymandias,” Shelley’s famous poem, reveals the impermanence of human achievement. The poem describes a crumbling statue, a “colossal wreck” in the form of a long-lost king. The reader of the poem is thrice-removed from Ozymandias, as the speaker relates a story he heard from a traveller who encountered the statue in the desert. A plate beneath the statue reads “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Though Ozymandias presumably means that other mighty kings should despair at their inability to match his strength, the statement ironically evokes despair in the readers of the poem by reminding them of the impermanence of human works. The traveller describes the shattered statue, abandoned to sink in the desert. He begins building the image of the statue by emphasizing its size, referring to it as “colossal” and “vast.” Early in the poem, this description serves to create a sense of the grandness of the statue and the story, but later it will create the sense that even incredible achievements will be lost to time. While the statue’s face still conveys something of Ozymandias’s nature, it, too, ultimately reinforces the impermanence of human works. By describing the sculptor’s skill (“its sculptor well that passion read”), the speaker begins to build the “despair” central to the poem. Neither the might of a king (Ozymandias) nor the skill of an artist (the sculptor) allows the monument to survive the test of time. The poem separates the reader from Ozymandias: it does not describe the king himself, but the speaker hearing a traveller tell of a statue he saw in the desert. This separation is central to the sense of impermanence in the poem. If the poem exposed the reader to Ozymandias’s mightiness, it might lend a sense of meaning to Ozymandias’s works. Instead, the poem reveals the ephemeral nature of power and artistry by separating the reader from both the king and his monument. Even though Ozymandias was...
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