Ozymandias by Percy Shelley: A Critical Note on the Predetermined Structure of the Poem

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The meaning of any poem is not the paraphrasing of its lines; its sense is obtained through two levels: first the rhythm, through reading the poem, and second once the poem is read, the imagery of the poem gives us the sense of the poem. If we want to experience a poem, we shouldn't consider that what took place in the lines is what really happened, because paraphrasing is only analyzing the apparent structure. The meaning of any poem is a meaning restricted to the poet at the moment of writing, this meaning is not static, but rather changes with time.

Shelly wrote a poem through his imagination, and, thus, he didn't write to register something that happened before he wrote the poem. He wrote for the future. The poem doesn't register any incident which happened in front the poet. He is rather using the historical reference to write about the future and not the past. If Shelly wanted to write about the past, it would be easier to write about the historical reference (Ramses II), but he used this symbolic reference only to write his poetic equivalence "Ozymandias". The title of the poem is an integral part and can be considered as the first line of the poem. Shelly creates a difference in the elapse of time between the "I" of the poet and the events.

Whenever we read a poem, our attention is drawn into an outward direction, to the words we are dealing with and their meaning, and to our memories that contain the conventional associations of the words we are dealing with, i.e, to the verbal patterns. The meaning of the words form the subject of the poem which doesn't belong to the poem; it is rather associated with the conventional status of our memories. We fix a static interpretation of the words of a poem, but to the poet and the poem itself, the meaning of the poem is not static. In any poem there is structure, which is the pattern found in words, this is the inward direction, we are lead to in reading the lines. "Ozymandias's" historical reference exists outside the poem, in history, if we think of this meaning then we are drawn outside the poem. "Ozymandias" is an exotic word which attracts us toward the inward direction of the poem. This direction implies the following: The structure of the opening lines

I met a traveller from an antique land, 
who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone 
stand in the desert...Near them on the sand,

There is an image which functions with the inward direction. In the above lines, Shelly is trying to make the exotic atmosphere, which the title gives, more concrete and to enhance it even further. He used the simple past to indicate a time which is far from the poet's own time when the poet says: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone..." he indicates the sense of authenticity and age. 

I met a traveller from an antique land
 who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

This notion of time work with the ambiguous and strange atmosphere and with the past tense.  "Ozymandias" couldn't mean (Ramses II) because of the words inwards function.

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

Instead of the "face" Shelly said "visage" which is remote formal and strange. "Visage" doesn't refer to the face of (Ramses II), or it would be related to an outward direction. Imagery is built up through the pattern formed by the poem. In a good poem, an image doesn't provoke an idea, a word provokes another word; but not an idea, once a word provokes an idea, then it surpasses the word pattern to the inward direction.

Line 1 represents one sound unit, because it rhymes with line 3; this presence of unity doesn't prevent the pattern to build up. However, as far as the image is concerned there is no unity, for an image has to build up in the poem. We have to overrun the sound units to complete the images because the patterns overrun the sound units. In line 6 "well those passions read" (passions) is both a subject and an object, this enhances the complexity of the poem. The deliberate short sentences give formality and seriousness to the atmosphere of "Ozymandias". We have to overrun the sound unity to see the image. Passion, as a word, serves a complicated structure where "passion" is three times a subject and one time an object {passions (object)  read, yet survive (subject), mocked them (subject)}.

Coleridge said that, if the poem does not justify itself, then the poem is a failure. If any poem has an alternative in its structure, then this would be on the expense of the poem. If we could change any word in the lines without affecting the structure of the poem or its sound pattern, then the poem is a failure because it lacks unity. The reason the lines are complex and complicated is that the poem sounds a bit contrived, the reason lies in the way the poem was written. The number of lines in the poem are 14 and that is no coincident because Shelly is writing in the sonnet form 14 lines, definite rhyme scheme (abab/cdcd/efef/gg). The complexity comes from Shelly's attempt in writing a sonnet form. "Ozymandias" has an irregular rhyme scheme although it is a sonnet; it has the form of an English sonnet except for the rhyme and that creates complexity. A sonnet is divided in a definite manner (quatrains) and is less complex than Shelly's sonnet because the division in "Ozymandias" is compressed. The poet is trying to fit a topic through a predetermined structure, and his (Shelly) topic is compressed. The issue is already artificial, because a poem should be the result of poetic experience. The whole structure is predetermined in the mind of the poem, while a poem's structure comes alongside the process of writing the poem, the lines are not the result of a spontaneous poetic experience, and this fact created complexity. (The object is alternatively an object then a subject then an object). The mechanical process of writing "Ozymandias" forced the poet to being complicated.

Some critics say that before Shelly wrote his poem, he was shown a statue and that the poem was written in a contest between two poets on writing about a statue. Critics admit that the poem was not the result of a poetic process. Artifice lead to complexity, and inside the structure of the poem, the poet was able to depict the image of "Ozymandias" as a serious formal image. He was focusing on the contrast between the might of the King and the mortality of his symbol. The great might of the King is only momentous and contemporary. The symbol of sands in line 14 multiply and functions; if we consider the sands as grains of sand, they all look the same in color and shape, contrary to the mortality of the statue. They are an immortal aspect of nature which will not change, in opposite to the statue which stands for the might and authority of a man, no matter how great he is, who is mortal.

To sum up, in my opinion, the target of poetry is emotional, so if any poet doesn't evoke emotion in the reader, then the poem wouldn't be a great poem. The difference between a poem and any other writing is the genesis of emotion. As a poem, "Ozymandias" is not a good poem, it is made of a preconceived form, or what I may call an artificial attention.