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How to analyse the poem "Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote "Ozymandias" in 1817, during the Romantic era of British literature. The poem was inspired by the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus's account of a statue of the pharaoh Ramses II (also known as Ozymandias) that was said to be in ruins in the desert. Shelley likely also drew inspiration from the political and social upheaval of his time, including the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

This is one of the 15 poems used in the Power and Conflict collection in the AQA Poetry Anthology. Let’s analyse the poem:


This poem is about the power struggle between a king and the inevitability of time. The once-mighty ruler Ozymandias has now been reduced to a "shattered visage" in the desert, while his grandiose claims of power, inscribed on a pedestal, have been eroded by time.

Form and structure

The poem is a sonnet, consisting of fourteen lines in iambic pentameter. It is structured into an octave (eight-line stanza) and a sestet (six-line stanza). The rhyme scheme is ABABACDC EFGEFG, which is a variation of the Petrarchan sonnet form. This structure allows Shelley to develop the theme of the transience of power in a compact and powerful way.

Language and Imagery

The language of the poem is simple, yet evocative. Shelley uses vivid imagery to create a sense of desolation and decay. For example, the "vast and trunkless legs of stone" and the "shattered visage" of the statue suggest the extent to which Ozymandias's legacy has crumbled. The use of the word "colossal" emphasises the former greatness of the statue, while the word "boundless" in the inscription underscores Ozymandias's sense of hubris. The sneering expression on the statue's face captures the pharaoh's arrogance and disdain for others.


The central theme of the poem is the transience of power and the ultimate futility of human achievements. The poem challenges the idea that power and greatness are eternal and highlights the fragility of even the mightiest empires. The poem also critiques the vanity of those who seek to immortalise themselves through their works. Another theme is the inevitability of decay and the passing of time. The poem suggests that everything is subject to the ravages of time, and that even the most imposing structures will eventually crumble.


The statue of Ozymandias is the central symbol in the poem. It represents the fleeting nature of power and the inevitable decline of all human achievements. The inscription on the pedestal is another symbol, representing the pharaoh's hubris and his desire for immortality. The desert setting is also symbolic, representing the barren and inhospitable nature of the world, as well as the passing of time.

Overall, "Ozymandias" is a powerful poem that invites readers to reflect on the ultimate futility of human striving and the transience of all earthly things. Shelley's use of language and imagery is masterful, and the poem remains a classic of English literature to this day.

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