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Destruction, from "Ozymandias," a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Subthemes: Nature, Humans Wreaking, Civilization Falls, Retribution

In Shelley’s poem, a traveler describes the colossal Wreck of an imperious ruler’s once-magnificent statue. What was once a grand and imposing monument in honor of a powerful King of Kings now lies scattered in rubble. The poem offers many interpretations, but here we will pay attention to the theme of destruction.

“Ozymandias” (Percy Bysshe Shelley)

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said — “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Ozymandias image

Nature: We cannot know from the poem what caused

Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert

with the legs fractured at the knees and the statue collapsed in what is now desert, but it is possible that the insidious effects of wind, rain, heat and temblor doomed the monument. No matter how grand the structures of humans, nothing can stand up to the forces of nature, encroaching dunes, or the other gradual erosions of time. Storm waves reshape beaches; high winds topple trees and decapitate houses; blazing heat melts roads; and hailstorms smash windows. Destruction treads with nature’s march toward reduction of all things.

Humans Wreaking: The propensity of humans to violently destroy others’ lives and property cannot be overstated. A victorious invading army may have razed the palace, my Works, and the surrounding lands ruled by Ozymandias; in so doing they may have triumphantly and symbolically toppled that fallen leader’s bragging statue. Given that the trunk has disappeared, it is more likely that hands of humans rather than the hand of God did the demolition. If an earthquake or a massive fire had attacked the monument, its pieces would have fallen nearby and likely remain visible. If soldiers sacked the palace and this icon, they might have looted the torso and hauled it away. After all, the narcissistic king would have adorned his trophy statute with jewels or precious metals. From this short poem, it seems less likely that attackers pulled down the magnificent monument than that the implacable undermining of nature did the deed because soldiers or others pillaging the grounds would probably have defaced the proud visage.

Civilization Falls: A metaphorical message about destruction permeates this poem. Certainly the grand carving on a pedestal honored a particular autocratic leader (Ozymandias), but that proud structure also represented a powerful city-state, fiefdom or empire. The destruction reminds us of the salting of Carthage after the Romans conquered it. [Note 1] All is desert in the poem around what was once a vibrant and lush city. All civilizations have prided themselves on their achievements – Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! – but most of them collapsed or were toppled.

Retribution: Although small towns shrivel under the impersonal forces of economics and racial injustice, much destruction is deliberate, as vengeance flows full in our veins. Perhaps an uprising of slaves or political outcasts overthrew the ruler, the cruel reigning sovereign, on his Ides of March. They would have danced around the symbolic shaming that comes from shattering the image of the once powerful. Mussilini on a meat hook, the Tsar’s family before the guns, the homage to Robert E. Lee upended; the Berlin Wall sledgehammered into pieces, the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan dynamited by the Taliban – destruction by humans gives vent to their oppressions and ideologies.

 

Colossal egos often end humbled, destroyed. Stalin was denounced and de-throned, Hitler fired a bullet in a bunker; royalty met the guillotine; Presidents have been impeached; and Enron’s CEO died of a heart attack. The downfalls of once-mighty figures often accompany the destruction of their artifacts, such as monuments, public squares, named bridges and airports, or stupendous edifices.

To consider subthemes of Destruction that are not closely associated with this poem or the other three genre of art, please visit Additional Subthemes. Read this for more about Themes from Art.

We invite you to read about other poems discussed on this blog, and their themes. Here they are:

  1. At least as early as 1863, various texts claimed that the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus sacked Carthage, enslaved its survivors, plowed over the city, and sowed it with salt after defeating it in the Third Punic War (146 BC).
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