Literary Analysis – “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysse Shelley

The aim of this piece was to model the skills of analysis for a classic poem. The piece was written around the fifth week of a set of sessions on “Animalia Poetry”. I consider poetry to provide excellent opportunities for the development of both critical and creative skills, and through such activities with me students have enjoyed stronger results, including: improved reading comprehension; a developed ability to infer meanings from texts; greater knowledge and application of the craft of writing; the purposeful practice of engaging readers’ imagination; and more enjoyment for their English studies!

When I first started presenting lessons for such a set of skills it was to Advanced Higher students in Year 12 in Scotland at one of the best and brightest schools in the country, and the students were very successful. Years later I conducted similar lessons with Year 8 students seeking entry to Melbourne High School and Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School, and the students were very successful. Now I teach such skills to students in Year 5, and the students are very successful! For a word document version of much better presentation and formatting than what is shown here email me at angus@gbdeducation.com.au.

Literary Analysis – “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysse Shelley

The first few lines of “Ozymandias” enjoy an orientation that is eloquently epic. Like other great literary works, such as One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights) or Wuthering Heights, there is a story being described within the story being described: the narrator seems to be on a journey or quest themselves when they come across a fellow “traveller” who also has a wondrous story to share. Further, this new character, who immediately takes on the role of narrator, enjoys special status as being from an “antique” land. Indeed, their story proves to be one dredged up from deep beneath the sands of time, both literally and figuratively.

Using strong imagery, a broken statue (a colossus really) in the desert is described. Certain terms in the description, such as “trunkless” and “visage”, somewhat obscure this depiction, and I am often surprised how readers are unable to comprehend the literal symbolism inherent in the description of “legs of stone” to suggest a majestic if broken sculpture of some historical tyrant.

Of the statue, the facial expressions are described with the alliterative metaphor “cold command” to import upon the reader the arrogant character of the long-dead model after whom the poem is named. Indeed, Ozymandias callously scorns us, saying “Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair” in the inscription on the pedestal. Ultimately the trick is on this former “King of Kings”, and the message in the final sentence of the poem is one to describe pride before the fall.

One of the reasons this poem is so famous (infamous!) is because it was quoted by Robert Oppenheimer, the architect and director of The Manhattan Project during World War Two that succeeded in creating the nuclear bomb. Oppenheimer’s fears for modern civilisation and Percy Bysse Shelley’s symbolism converge in the narrative of Planet of the Apes (sorry for the spoiler!!!).

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