By: Dianne HeathRead more »
|Image via Mark Scott|
What Does Honorable Power Mean to Percy Shelley?
In Ozymandias, Percy Shelly unabashedly scrutinizes the power bestowed to humans who are embellished with glory, titles, and high social status by illustrating how its inherently transient state embeds vulnerability. Shelley characterizes invulnerable, yet moral power as being able to survive and even transcend the ravages of time. Time is identified as one of the most powerful natural forces. Although time resides in the shadows of Shelley's explicit narrative, it graces the center stage visually as we witness the glorious power of the king delegitimized, dethroned and disempowered into a subject of time. Time's purity uplifts it as the obviously wise, respected and trusted character despite its consuming power. Therefore a likely candidate who is entrusted to deliver time's lesson is a traveler from an antique land, a character who has a relationship with time.
Shelley challenges the notion (which has numbed society to deceptive spectacles of power that obscure vulnerability) that seemingly noble figures whose power succumbs to time, unquestionably deserves the authority to compel concentrated human effort that conjures reverence and awe. Time uses its position to transgress against this human intellectual tradition by ruthlessly and fearlessly exposing this power as fruitless. Time, a trusted and moral authority poses a question to humanity, do these figures deserve to navigate our motives and be the recipient of our heartfelt obedience. Time advocates for the nameless forces and untitled sources who are depleted of social status and yet add timeless value to be recognized as deserving.
The introduction of the traveler from an antique land hints that the poem encapsulates a message that gifts knowledge to humanity. The trust conferred to the traveler by time and Shelley was not earned by titles but by his identity which is intertwined with and defined by nature. In this instance the traveler is defined by unbiased land and time. We can assume that the mature traveler is unencumbered with loyalty to a specific land or its ruler but instead welcomes being inundated by a diffusion of unnamed sources and forces; intriguing characters, rich customs, befuddling yet riveting interactions and consistent exposure to viewpoints that diverge from the character's own. The traveler is not beholden to a culture but is rejuvenated by exploration and collecting contrasting experiences. The word antique suggests that the traveler has access to ancient wisdom enriched with competing experiences that escapes most people who are comfortably settled or even unwillingly trapped in their culture.
A universal theme crystallizes as Shelley mocks social status and nobility by visually presenting bold and ironic contrasts. In the vast, uncompromising terrain we witness elements of nature, stone, standing confidently in a landscape that terrifies even the most adventurous souls. However the human consciousness of the standing stone with legs adds life to this barren desert devoid of human life. In contrast to the confident almost conscious and living standing, there is a half sunk shattered visage that lies like a corpse slayed by thirst. The deafening cold command and image of an arrogant sneer contradicts the visage's defeated half sunk position and exposes its power as a mirage. The vastness of the landscape evokes its everlasting presence and in it the stone stands. The sneer communicates that the shattered figure assumed his legacy would inevitability inflame the imaginations of future generations. But instead the vulnerability of lying in the sand isolated from human civilization or admiration amongst the powerful nature who detract from his power betrays this confidence and reveals it as hollow.
The visage's demand for our allegiance is undermined by Shelley as he abruptly shifts the lyrical lens to the anonymous sculptor, another timeless character. Shelley muddles which character is the main subject of the poem. The passions of the deadened figure are immortal due to the timelessness of the stone and the sculptor's abilities. The visage is half sunk and its withering legacy slowly engulfed by the terrain but the artist's hand has reached from the depths of gaping destruction, gripped the surface and stamped life into the lifeless. But who is lifeless, the stone or the human the stone was sculpted to represent? According to Shelley, the sculpted stone is animated. He challenges our conceptions of life and what the living consumes by declaring the sculptor's heart, his love for the art, fed the living almost deified stone. The sculptor's heart livens the living stone, not the figure who deadens the stone. This anonymous and unrecognized power was commissioned to accurately portray this figure but now this portrayal mocks him. This same art recedes and offers critical evidence against this figure's power.
The pedestal indicates that the sculpted stone is in direct competition to the standing stone. However the stone, this element, stands out as the most powerful since the memory of the human is feasible solely due to the stone. Then there is the visual contrast between the words announcing the social status as kings or kings, the name of the figure Ozymandias and the bold proclamation "look on my works, ye mighty and despair" versus the visual emptiness where nothing beside remains. There is double mockery, the mocking of the Ozymandias and even the other kings and who this figure envisions as mighty. The rivalry between “powers” is dead. The king's verbal legacy is forced to live through sculpted stone since his works, visible evidence of his immense power is invisible. The decay of the colossal wreck visually represents titled human power. It is not the desert that is barren but the great works of a great figure as boundless and bare.
Percy waited until the end of the poem to reveal the identity of the half sunk figure deliberately. Nobility and prestige are such normalized emblems in society that if Shelley had preemptively exposed the wrinkled sneer as connected to a title, the ridiculous scene would have been justified and the meaning of the poem blunted. The reveal or ironic climax of the poem raises more questions, as we grapple with contrasts between the timeless and the decaying. Then the drama falls to the stable, level and unassuming sand that stretches far away until forever. The vast space also symbolizes time. Percy ends the poem demonstrating that true invulnerable yet virtuous power can defy and even become time. The lone and level stand has no pedestal but its presence commands. The collective forces and sources have true power, not necessarily a single figure on a pedestal.