Grade 9 Essay Comparing Ozymandias and My Last Duchess in AQA's Power and Conflict
Sample Ozymandias Essay
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 seemingly powerful enough to build the statue, the speaker only hears of him through happenstance. If the speaker had never met the traveler, the traveler had never found the statue, or Ozymandias had never commissioned the statue, the speaker might have never heard of Ozymandias, let alone experienced a sense of his might. This discovery of Ozymandias by chance, coupled with the separation of the speaker from the king, create the sense of loss around Ozymandias’s works.
Beneath the statue, on the pedestal, a placard reads “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:/ Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” When dictating this placard, Ozymandias surely intended to proclaim his might to anyone drawing near the statue. The phrase “king of kings” demonstrates that he was very powerful, perhaps more akin to an emperor than the prince of a nation-state. While the command to “despair!” once implored his subjects and enemies to dread his power, it now implores the reader to despair at fleeting nature of humanity. Through decay, time inverts this statement to imply that no matter how powerful you are, or how great your works, you will eventually fade into obscurity.
A sense of the impermanence of human achievement permeates this poem. The poem’s focus on vastness helps evoke a sense Ozymandias’ might, heightening the reader’s “despair” at the statue’s “decay.” By distancing the reader from Ozymandias’s power through layers of storytellers (the sculptor, the traveller, and the speaker), and the ironic statement engraved on the statue’s pedestal, the poem reveals time’s dominance over all human works, including words. The poem describes the futility of amassing skill and power, leaving the reader to contemplate the ephemeral nature of human life.
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