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Hubris – The Ultimate Deluding Illusion

Time’s annihilating power is instantly evident in the fragmented and decaying ruins of Ozymandias, better known as Rameses II, possibly Egypt’s greatest pharaoh. The very first spotlight falls on “two vast and trunkless feet of stone” standing in utter desolation in the desert, rather than the more personal face. The torso remains missing so that we can only imagine a hulk of a figure. And in a particularly deft touch,” the shattered visage” lies half-buried in the sand so that the process of defacing is well underway. How profound of Shelley to choose “the lone and level sands” – the barren, desolate, arid, lifeless landscape which precludes and/or devours civilisations, in the long run, hiding all traces of their existence in a relatively short time span!

His success may be attributed to the resemblance between their haughty and egotistic characters

The personification in how “the shattered visage” can “tell” projects a jabbing irony since the telling of the tale is done in a most impersonal way. Nevertheless, enough remains of the face to enable us to picture a conceited despot whose “frown/And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command” must have once inspired awe. In fact, the sculptor fully understood the power lusting “passions” of his subject because he succeeded in depicting them so precisely. His success may be attributed to the resemblance between their haughty and egotistic characters. The irony, however, is that the personality of the strangely interlinked king and sculptor survives “stamped on these lifeless things” so that rather than a life of grandeur and achievement, we remain struck by the pervading sense of decay of a long-dead king and artist.

Moreover, what should have been a monument to greatness turns out to be a condemning picture of a haughty and boastful king. The megalomaniac words on the pedestal gain in more irony because the ruined statue is now merely an idle boast, a monument to man’s hubris and a powerful statement about the insignificance of human beings:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

Shelley deliberately lets the curtain fall on the “colossal wreck” which lies “boundless and bare” in the desolation of an expanse of “lone and level sands.” The contrasting alliteration of the plosive /b/ and the alliteration of the liquid /l/ heighten the crumbing decay of the “colossal wreck”. The uncanny aural and visual imagery reinforces the allusion to the gigantic statue of Colossus in Rhodes. We can easily infer that Shelley despised the empire-building tyrannical type of ruler. After all, he lived through Napoleon’s manic hurricaning of Europe that in turn was still reeling from the seismic impact of the French Revolution which broke out in 1789.

The relentless march of time totally eclipses any marching army used to build mighty, massive empires.

The poem is therefore built on a single, yet powerful extended metaphor for the ephemeral nature of political power, The once proud and potent Ozymandias is long dead whose name is nothing but a feeble shadow and whose massive monument lies in crumbling ruins; his civilization gone and turned to dust by the impersonal destructive power of time. The relentless march of time totally eclipses any marching army used to build mighty, massive empires. Ozymandias symbolizes more than the illusion of political power for the statue doubles up as a metaphor for the hubris of all of humanity. And in any of its manifestations. Consequently, all that remains of Ozymandias is a statue denoting initial petrification followed by corrosion and eventually utterly forgotten days of glory.

Significantly, just like Shakespeare does in his sonnets, Shelley demonstrates that art and language long outlast other legacies of power. On one hand, it may be argued that Shelley’s more lasting literary work ironically manifests an ego similarly caught up in the deluding illusion of arrogance. While all artists are ego-driven, Shelley’s belief that ‘all a poet can do is warn’ is also a tribute/lament to the power of words as an eye-opener which can never guarantee an audience taking heed.

There is also something idiosyncratically rebellious in Shelley’s decision to write the poem in the sonnet form on his own terms. A quick glance recalls the octave of an English sonnet. A closer look shows us that the alternating rhyming couplets (abab acdc) here contain the half or eye-rhymes of ‘stone/frown and sand/command. Even the (ece fef) rhyme scheme in the sestet is a variant to the Italian while the use of iambic pentameter is partial. The position of the volta is also debatable.

Indeed, Shelley gives more than a twist to the structure’s traditional rhythm and rhyme schemes since he interweaves several pauses together with run-on lines and jerking punctuation to counteract the normally undulating dee-dum rhythms of iambic pentameter. Apart from indicating Shelley’s experimentation with the sonnet structure, the ensuing irregularities also help to reinforce the sense of crumbling and decay caused by the passing of time despite the poem’s air of understatement.

Nor is it enough to assess the technical details of Shelley’s imprint on the sonnet structure, no matter how ingenious and impactful. Writing a sonnet is a wonder because its structural constraints are the ultimate in saying a lot in a little – and doing so in a glorious mesh of poetry, philosophy, and rhetoric without forfeiting coherence.

Shelley’s dissonant Ozymandias does all this and more because it lets out its damning timeless and placeless message with the percussion of human speech and gnawing heartache pounding the poem’s literariness. In his case, coloured by his fist-punching atheism ironically craving the solace of eternal life in the arms of Christ as his reference to the “King of Kings” betrays.

If I could, I would have this poem included as mandatory in any political science and corporate course of study.

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Noemi Zarb
Noemi Zarb
Writing, teaching, marketing. I have pursued three totally different career paths with the power of words serving both as link and lynchpin. Now I dedicate most of my time to writing - a never-ending romance. Typical of content writing I have been and am still responsible for scripting webs, advertorials as well as full-length articles. As a feature/opinion writer, I have over 600 articles published in Malta's leading newspapers and magazines (and still counting) - an experience which honed my interviewing skills when I interviewed countless painters and people involved in the performance arts. I also have over two decades of teaching English Literature and Critical Thinking via Textual Analysis under my belt having prepared students for the IB Diploma in English Language and Literature as well as MATSEC, IGCSE and SEC examinations in English language and English Literature. TEFL sometimes punctuated my summer holidays. Dealing with young people keeps you young and I have truckloads of cherished memories of my past students My current writing continues to be inspired by what life throws at me together with my critical thinking of what goes on (or doesn’t) around me firing my sense perception and vice versa. Being immersed in the corporate world gives me endless opportunities to observe facets of human behavior which invariably have me brood over. Learning and thinking over what I learn is still my way forward.

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3 CONVERSATIONS

    • Love your profound remark. Thank you Larry for taking the time to read and reflect over my piece. How wonderful it is to enkindle our journey towards the light!

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