“Ozymandias” is at first glance a sonnet about the transitory nature of life and its pretensions of fame and fortune. The decaying, ancient statue bears witness to the fact that the pursuit of power and glory for their own sakes are not only fleeting, but they are also illusory, unworthy ambitions even within the lifetime of their seekers.
The nineteenth century was filled with “discoveries” of ancient landscapes, built upon a historiography of “great men,” who were to elicit the attention and admiration of a generation of scholars and writers. Shelley chose, however, to poke holes in the “great man” theory of history, questioning its validity and its rationality.
The poem also works on another level, however—as a candid, poignant confession by the artist that his work is also ephemeral, and that as style, manner, and fashion change, so do reputation and honor. Such a confessional spirit was particularly appropriate for Shelley and other Romantics, that clan of “rebel spirits”—among them William Blake; George Gordon; Lord Byron; John Keats; Samuel Taylor Coleridge; and William Wordsworth.
This new generation of poets flouted tradition, inventing their own vocabularies, subject matters, and poetic form, and generally laboring to raise the poet’s consciousness of his own imagination to an unprecedented level. “Ozymandias” exemplifies both in theme and in execution these “rebellious” notions.
Often, the poet himself was the topic and focus of his poetry, rather than the grander themes of man and God or the courtship of ladies and gentlemen. Audiences for the first time were confronted with the artist’s “personality,” and not only his work. Autobiography, not history, was to become the focal point of literary endeavor—and literary criticism.