Percy Shelley: Poems

"Ozymandias": A Close Reading College

Percy Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias” (1818) is, in many ways, an outlier in his oeuvre: it is short, adhering to the fourteen line length of most traditional sonnets; its precise language, filled with concrete nouns and active verbs, contrasts against the circuitous, abstract language of “O World! O Life! O Time!” (1824); and, most saliently, it does not seek to radicalize or shock, like the “The Necessity of Atheism” (1811) or The Cenci, his 1819 closet drama about incest and murder. Shelley’s often combative, politically-charged style makes “Ozymandias” seem tame in comparison to most of his other poems. That said, a close reading of the sonnet reveals its political and theological heart. Shelley’s core beliefs—like the importance of atheism, the impermanence of man-made societal structures, and the unpreventable certainty of oblivion—thematically buttress the foundation of “Ozymandias.” With uncharacteristic subtlety and nuance, Shelley uses the poem’s eponymous statue to evidence the ephemerality of power and civilization as a whole.

Structurally, “Ozymandias” does not adhere to one specific form, although it does contain elements of both the Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnet. It operates in a loose iambic pentameter,...

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