The Politics of Form in Shelley’s “Ozymandias”

Melissa Rubbert

Percy Bysshe Shelley embraced the power of poetry to not only express emotion, but also to share and promote personal ideology. His popular sonnet “Ozymandias” is largely recognized as a rumination on the role of art; however, when juxtaposed with his “A Defence of Poetry” and A Philosophical View of Reform, “Ozymandias” becomes an exemplary revision of the emblematic sonnet form. Combining elements of both the Shakespearean and the Petrarchan sonnet traditions, Shelley models for his readers how one must examine preexisting forms and proposes personal agency as an alternative to traditional notions of power.

Shelley insists that the role of the poet is one of holding the responsibility to share intellect and innovation. He emphasizes the importance of the role of poets in the process of reform, and encourages their participation in reformation movements (A Philosophical View of Reform 29). He makes a nearly identical argument in his “Defence of Poetry,” asserting, “The most unfailing herald, companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is Poetry” (868). We can see Shelley’s insistence upon the belief that expression, and thus agency, is the ultimate means by which reform can occur. He claims, “The strongest argument, perhaps, for the necessity of Reform, is the inoperative and unconscious abjectness to which the purposes of a considerable mass of people are reduced,” and asserts that “The advocates of Reform” must inspire others to also question the existing forms (A Philosophical View of Reform 82-3). His predominant complaint against the social order is the miserable state in which the masses exist. We can attribute this obsession with allowing everyone to feel worthwhile to his ideology that the key to successful reform is the expression of the desire for, and necessity of, reform; he wants everyone to have agency, and what better way to enforce both that notion and a reformation than by enacting a reformation via agency? He believes, “If the majority are enlightened, united, impelled by a uniform enthusiasm and animated by a distinct and powerful appreciation of their object, and feel confidence in their undoubted power—the struggle is merely nominal” (79). It is upon the shoulders of poets that the responsibility for energizing the masses sits. Shelley claims there is an “inevitable connection between national prosperity and freedom, and the cultivation of imagination and the cultivation of scientific truth, and the profound development of moral and metaphysical enquiry” (87), and suggests that poets and philosophers embody those inherent skills necessary to inspire a unified attempt at reform. He explicitly claims in his “A Defence of Poetry” that poets are “the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society and the inventors of the arts of life” (858), which denotes Shelley’s insistence upon the fact that the only way an adequate reform could occur is if expression occurs.

Shelley’s resistance to yielding to poetic form served as a model for how he thought not merely suffrage, but a reformation of existing societal forms, should occur gradually and peacefully. In an essay from the Southwest Review, Jennifer Wagner reflects upon Shelley’s empowerment of the reader, rather than the speaker, by his breaking from the sonnet form. She argues that Shelley’s use of the sonnet form can be attributed to the influence of Wordsworth, who used the sonnet form as “imaginative power” (109). We can draw a parallel between how Shelley describes in A Philosophical View of Reform the politics of England during his time, and Wagner’s claim in respect to how Shelley utilized, and possibly viewed, the sonnet form: Shelley literally employs the term “forms” when he discusses concerns he holds regarding the existing domestic, social, and especially, political structures of his time. When Shelley discusses the functioning of English society, he discusses the many “social forms,” “domestic forms,” “forms of government,” and “political forms” that he sees as problematic for England. Shelley quite literally asks for reform, as in a reformation of the aforementioned existing forms; he covets a complete turn-around of society and reform of control by the aristocracy into a government system that works for the community as a whole. He desires politicians to work for the masses, and he wants the masses to work toward universal rights to wellbeing, rather than just suffrage. Shelley expressed confusion as to why people fought for universal suffrage, but not for a change in the government itself. It seems he hoped that people would claim their own agencies fully, rather than just the right to choose who averts their agency from them.

Shelley asserts, however, that this reform must be gradual, and that people must take the reformation step by step, slowly acclimating to new freedoms and justices. He writes that people must enact their sovereignty proportionately as they gain it, and little by little gain more, and then enact that as well. He hopes that eventually, sovereignty will become so common that the reformation will be complete without a bloody revolution. He argues that mankind needs to focus on the future, not the past, and implies that writers should be looked to for the accomplishment of this task, as “The literature of England, and energetic development of which, has ever followed or preceded a great and free development of the national will” (A Philosophical View of Reform 29). He asserts that what needs to be established is an innovative political philosophy, for there is “A thirst for accommodating the existing forms, according to which mankind are found, divided to those rules of freedom and equality […] Contemporary with this condition of the intellect, all the powers of mankind, though in most cases under forms highly inauspicious, began to develop themselves with uncommon energy” (A Philosophical View of Reform 10). He implies here that mankind must try to prevail over the existing systems, and create a new society in which justice and equality are provided to all. Shelley criticizes man for shaping society around forms that already exist, rather than evolving those forms themselves, or ‘reforming’ them. It is due to this confinement by preexisting forms that society cannot progress to meet the needs of its inhabitants. Shelley’s use of the term “forms” directly correlates with Wagner’s belief that “The construction of Shelley’s sonnets suggests that the poet recognized closure as form’s most tyrannical element, closing off the poem from any possibility of change or development–for these sonnets are characterized by an openendedness that resists an ending” (110). Shelley illustrates his resistance to complacency of the limitations enforced by the English society and government by resisting the similar confining nature of the sonnet form.

Shelley sets an example for how he wishes the public to push for reform when he breaks from the traditional sonnet form. In “A Defence of Poetry,” he strikingly argues, “it is by no means essential that a poet should accommodate his language to [traditional] form… every great poet must inevitably innovate upon the example of his predecessors in the exact structure of his peculiar versification” (860), which reflects the aforementioned claim that reform can only be accomplished by looking to the future, not the past. In order to attain reform, old forms must be deconstructed. He attributes the success of prevailing governmental and political forms to the complacency of the masses and their acceptance of the existing forms due to the comfort they find in structure (A Philosophical View of Reform 74).

In “Ozymandias,” Shelley illuminates the true nature of power and suggests methods of how to overcome political forces by enacting personal agency. The sonnet opens with the speaker asserting his power over the recitation of the poem. The first line, “I met a traveller from an antique land,” contains one extra syllable, which affirms the speaker’s dominance over the form from the start (line 1). The first and second lines are also an introduction to the fact that the speaker is recalling for us what he had heard from “a traveller from an antique land” (1), which informs the reader that it is upon the speaker’s agency to relay the story accurately, or inaccurately, depending upon what he chooses. The speaker’s identification of the traveller as being from an “antique land” introduces the theme of antiquity in this piece, and consequently, its lack of power. Though the speaker is supposedly reciting what he had heard from the traveller, the traveller has no agency over his own story, as the speaker is the one retelling it—the traveller lost control, or power, over his own story.

Much like the traveler’s loss of power, the statue loses its purpose. The speaker describes “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone” (2), showing that though the legs have become purposeless, they still exhibit longevity. This concept can be applied to how Shelley felt about the king, as he asserts that the aristocracy holds the true power, for “The name of the king and the office of king is merely the mask of [the aristocracy’s] power” (A Philosophical View of Reform 38). Shelley explicitly claims that “the nobility […] made the Crown the mask and pretence of their own authority […] which under colour of administering power lodged in the king, represented in truth, the interest of the rich” (A Philosophical View of Reform 37), meaning that the king served more as a figurehead. Both the statue and England’s monarch serve as symbols for roles they do not fulfill.

Ozymandias lost the agency of his legacy when he had the statue of himself constructed. The speaker claims that the facial expression and features on the statue “Tell that its sculptor well [Ozymandias’s] passions read / Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things” (6-7), thus it is the passions that the sculptor resolved to sculpt that survive, not Ozymandias’s actual passions. The pedestal upon which the words “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; / Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” (10-11) appear also removes agency from Ozymandias himself because now that “Nothing beside remains” (12), the visage stands alone, and the “despair!” (11) holds a different meaning. The new context of “despair” is bleak, and quite ironic: the plaque now serves as a warning to other powerful rulers that, no matter how much power they think they currently hold, their influence will someday dwindle as well. The “despair” fatefully foretells the future of the powerful, almost as if to say, “Look! Even I, king of kings, have nothing left of my legacy but this plaque.”

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings” (10) is another line that contains an extra syllable. This deviation from the meter also speaks to the unexpected, and is a foreshadowing of the fall of Ozymandias’s empire. It is with the words on the statue’s pedestal that Shelley relays a warning to the English aristocracy; they may hold the power now, but oppression will not withstand once the public finds their agency. Ozymandias’s empire fell, as did his visage. All that remained were the words written on the plaque, demonstrating that words hold more power than oppressive rulers with armies. In A Philosophical View of Reform, Shelley encourages the masses to voice their dissatisfaction with societal and political forms, and by demonstrating the words’ longevity compared to the empire’s longevity, he is asserting the power of expression.

“Ozymandias” is structurally a Petrarchan sonnet, but the rhyme scheme differs from that of a traditional Petrarchan sonnet. The rhyme scheme in this poem is ABABACDCEDEFEF, rather than the traditional ABBAABBACDECDE. The Shakespearean sonnet’s typical rhyme scheme is ABABCDCDEFEFGG, thus we can observe that “Ozymandias” contains elements of both sonnets’ schemas. “Ozymandias” also contains a volta in the ninth line, which is a typical Petrarchan element, but rather than existing as a turn in the poem, it functions as an alternative perspective. This poem offers optimism in that it demonstrates that altering a system from within is possible, even if one is subject to its restraints.

Shelley was considered a radical revolutionary during his time as a result of his outspoken dissatisfaction with the English government and its effect on English society. Upon looking further into his works, however, we can see that Shelley was not calling for a revolution in the traditional sense, but for a gradual process of peaceful reform. He insisted that poets were the key to encouraging change, and with this knowledge, it becomes clear that Shelley broke from the traditional sonnet form to set an example for the public of how to break from traditional forms using one’s own agency. Shelley was considered dangerous in his time, but ironically, his ideologies are exactly what the world needs now—peace, expression, and innovation.


Works Cited

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “A Defence of Poetry.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Edited by Stephen Greenblatt, vol. D, W.W. Norton & Company, 2012, pp. 856-869.

— “A Philosophical View of Reform.” Online Library of Liberty. Edited by T.W. Rolleston, Oxford UP, 1920, http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/2510.

— “Ozymandias.” The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms. Edited by Mark Strand and Evan Bolan, W.W. Norton & Company, 2001, p. 62.

Wagner, Jennifer. “A Figure Of Resistance: The Visionary Reader In Shelley’s Sonnets And The ‘West Wind’ Ode.” Southwest Review, vol. 77, no. 1, 1992, pp. 109-127. JSTOR   http://www.jstor.org/stable/43470340.

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The Politics of Form in Shelley’s “Ozymandias” Copyright © 2018 by Melissa Rubbert. All Rights Reserved.

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