Study Guide

Ozymandias Themes

  • Transience

    "Ozymandias" is obsessed with transience; the very fact that the statue is a "colossal wreck" (13) says loudly and clearly that some things just don't last forever. But the poem isn't just about how really big statues eventually succumb to the ravages of time; the statue is a symbol of Ozymandias's ambition, pride, and absolute power, and thus the poem also implies that kingdoms and political regimes will eventually crumble, leaving no trace of their existence except, perhaps, pathetic statues that no longer even have torsos.

    Questions About Transience

    1. Do all political regimes necessarily pass away? Are there some that just won't go away?
    2. How does the poem view the permanence of art? Do artistic "works" necessarily "decay" like the statue of Ozymandias?
    3. Is the poem's view of transience and impermanence hopeful or despairing?
    4. Are there any signs that the poem laments the destruction of the statue and the loss of the civilization that produced it?

    Chew on This

    Even though the poem is obsessed with transience and impermanence, it also suggests that a work of art, however fragmentary, leaves a record of what has passed away.

  • Pride

    In the inscription on the pedestal Ozymandias calls himself the "king of kings" while also implying that his "works" – works of art like the statue, pyramids, that sort of thing – are the best around (10). Ozymandias thinks pretty highly of himself and of what he's achieved, both politically and artistically. The fact that he commissions this "colossal" statue with "vast legs" points to his sense of pride, while the statue's fragmentary state indicates the emptiness (at least in the long term) of Ozymandias's boast.

    Questions About Pride

    1. The statue in the poem sounds like a really cool work of art; isn't it to be expected that Ozymandias would take pride in such an artistic wonder?
    2. Is there any indication that the sculptor takes pride in his work?
    3. If Ozymandias was pharaoh during a particularly prosperous period of Egyptian history, is it at all possible that he really was the "king of kings"(10)? Could he have been better than any other king around?
    4. Does the poem suggest that pride in itself is bad? Or is it just bad when indulged in by a tyrant like Ozymandias?

    Chew on This

    Ozymandias's proud statement that he is the "king of kings" aligns him with a number of power-hungry villains, like the Biblical Satan, or even Sauron from Lord of the Rings.

  • Art and Culture

    "Ozymandias" was inspired by a statue, and it's no surprise that art is one of this poem's themes. The traveler makes a point of telling us that the statue was made by a really skilled sculptor, and the poem as a whole explores the question of art's longevity. The statue is in part a stand-in or substitute for all kinds of art (painting, poetry, etc.), and the poem asks us to think not just about sculpture, but about the fate of other arts as well.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. If even a durable statue like the one described in the poem eventually crumbles, what happens to other kinds of art that use flimsier materials – like poetry and painting?
    2. The traveler refers to the destroyed statue as a heap of "lifeless things" (7). Is the statue "lifeless" because it's in pieces, because it is "trunkless" and headless and is thus no longer a complete body? Or is it "lifeless" because it's made of something inorganic (stone)?
    3. The sculptor is said to have accurately rendered the passions of Ozymandias's face. Is the only way to judge a work of art by how "real" it looks, by how much it resembles that which it represents?
    4. What kind of connection exists between a work of art and the civilization or culture that produced it? Can art tell us anything about the culture that produced it?

    Chew on This

    The sculptor is similar to the reader of the poem because both engage in the processes of reading and interpretation.

  • Man and the Natural World

    "Ozymandias" describes a statue, and statues are made from rocks and stones found in nature. While the poem explores the way in which art necessarily involves some kind of engagement with the natural world, it also thinks about how nature might fight back. The statue's head is half-buried in the sand, after all, and we are left wondering what role the erosive force of dust storms, wind, and rain played in its destruction.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Does all art necessarily use materials from nature, like rocks, stones, and paper?
    2. Besides getting its raw materials (paper, rocks, stones) from nature, in what other ways does art interact with the natural world?
    3. Do you feel that nature is punishing Ozymandias for his pride by destroying his statue? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    "Ozymandias" suggests that the relationship between art and nature is a double-edged sword: while the natural world furnishes the artist with raw materials, it also has the power to reclaim those materials by later destroying the work of art.