Saturday, January 13, 2018

As a Sonnet

Ozymandias is one of the best sonnets that Shelley wrote. Technically the poem conforms to the sonnet form in having fourteen lines in iambic metre, and in having ten syllables in each line. But in terms of rhyme scheme, i.e.: ab ab ac dc ed ef ef, it conforms neither to a Shakespearean nor to a Miltonic sonnet. William Shairp writes:

"Shelley wrote even fewer sonnets than did Byron: but the few that Byron wrote he wrote well, and this cannot be said of Shelley. This imaginative and beautiful (though far from flawless) poem in fourteen lines is so divergent from all accepted rules that it can hardly be styled a sonnet. No writer nowadays could venture to print a sonnet with such rhymes as stone—frown: appear—despair. As an imaginative poem it is, as is felt by every reader, very impressive. It is strange that Shelley, the most poetic of poets, should have been unable to write a good sonnet; probably the restrictions of the form pressed upon him with a special heaviness".

Presentation of theme

In spite of its technical drawbacks as a sonnet Ozymandias is universally accepted as one of the finest poems by Shelley. The theme of his sonnet—ravages of time—is the favourite theme with Shakespeare, and in its presentation with detachment and poetic skill Shelley has indeed come very near the great master. If he had not wriggled out of the fetters of the sonnet form, he would never have been able to attain such magnificence for this poem. To make what he wants to say more convincing he maintains the detached tone throughout the poem. Except the first ten words where Shelley seems to imply that he will merely report and not interpret, the entire poem is fashioned after a traveller's tale. Shelley has employed this device deliberately because he knows that morals preached indirectly and through narration of events by supposed eye-witnesses can be much quicker to get home than plain, direct sermons. The clear visual images at the beginning of the tale are meant to suggest the traveller's reliability and quick observation of relevant details. The crux of the poem, the inscription, seems more convincing because it seems to come from a reliable impartial traveller. This explains why the last three lines of the poem which contain the irony of the inscription as well as the theme seem so poignant, convincing and clear to anyone who reads the poem.


Uniqueness of the poem

Ozymandias is different in subject and treatment from all other works of the poet. On this aspect of the poem Desmond King-Hele writes:

"No one who was asked to select a typical poem of Shelley's would choose Ozymandias: intuitively one feels the poem is completely atypical, and it is not difficult to see why. First there is the subject; Shelley usually wrote about things dear to his heart, while Ozymandias is a little remote. Then there is the tone, which, partly because of the subject, is passionless, objective and calm, instead of being passionate, subjective and excited. Last, and perhaps most important, there is the aim. Shelley's habit was to aim high, sometimes impossibly high, and even though, he would often turn out the most rewarding type of poem which yields new layers of meaning at each re-reading, his success was rarely complete. In Ozymandias, however, he is content with a limited objective, a straightforward piece of irony, and he succeeds completely."


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