The poem was written as a bet between a group of literary contemporaries. It became one of the most renowned poems that ever emerged from the Romantic era. Percy Shelley's "Ozymandias", tells a short tale of an old king who believed his empire to be immortal yet nothing remained hundreds of years later when a traveler passes by the ruins. Shelley attempts to suggest that in the grand scheme of the world, only nature remains immortal. All life and property can not live forever. The themes of this poem can be read in a plethora of different ways. Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin each have their respective interpretations of Shelley's masterpiece. While Barthes would comment on the life inherent in death, the certificate of presence and the restriction of structure, Benjamin would point out the artifact as a determinant of history, the fake reality of the stone and the notion of a history of victors. Both thinkers would shed a new light on the meanings and themes of Percy Shelley's poem.
Roland Barthes discusses the taming and capturing aspect of the photograph in his Camera Lucida. The photograph and the statue in "Ozymandias" have some very similar traits. Both can be seen as images of the past that breathe life into the dead. Barthes would suggest that the remains of the statue are the return of the dead in the form of an object. Since Barthes seeks death in the photograph, he may also see the people of the empire that have died in the broken statue of the king. The statue resurrects the subject inherent in the object through its presence since the "terrible thing, which is there in every [object, is] the return of the dead." (Camera Lucida, pg.9)
|Ozymandias of Egypt
by Percy Shelley
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 shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command 5
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: 10
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 statue then invokes the idea of the ruler that created the empire, which no longer remains. It has thus become a "total image, which is to say, death in person" because it is a replica of the ruler. (Camera Lucida, pg.14) Again, if Barthes sees the statue the same way he sees the photograph, the statue makes apparent the things the traveler can not see in real life. It embodies the past, a time that the traveler can no longer reach. Barthes would suggest that the life of the ruler can be seen through the statue because the broken stone represents that time period of his life and great reign.
In addition and in relation to the idea of death, Barthes would propose that history too could be used in the interpretation of Shelley's poem. Barthes states that history is a dead object. History can only be alive through the invocation of something present. Barthes would suggest that like the photograph, the statue "does not necessarily say what is no longer, but only for certain what has been." (Camera Lucida, pg.85) The statue would serve as a reminder of the great king and the accomplishments he made during his lifetime. Barthes would go on to say that the destruction of the statue also denotes a second death of the ruler. A specific artifact, like the photograph or the statue, "is never distinguished from its referent." (Camera Lucida, pg.5) The idea of the subject, the ruler in this case, "can not be separated [from the object] without destroying them both." (Camera Lucida, pg.6) Barthes suggests that since the idea of the rule and the statue are so inherently connected, the decay of the stone symbolizes again the death of the ruler. Once the statue is completely gone to ashes, so will the memory of the ruler because there will no longer be something to trigger the past. Therefore, the stone serves as a marker of presence and evidence of a life that no longer exists.
The structure of the poem itself would provoke a Barthian interpretation. His remarks on the rigidity of the Japanese Haiku leads one to believe that some of the same notions could be forwarded to the English sonnet. Like the Haiku, the sonnet too follows a set of rules that restrict the composer. The sonnet can also be termed "undevelopable [because] everything is given" and there is no "desire for or even the possibility of a rhetorical expansion." (Camera Lucida, pg. 49) There is no room within the form to grow or expand the thoughts the composer wishes to express. He must be concise and because of the "intense immobility [that is] linked to detail." (Camera Lucida, pg.49) Although Barthes would appreciate the capacity of the poem to hold such enormous subjects, he would note that the image itself is motionless. Even though subjects can be related to through the stone, Barthes would say, "the figures it represents do not move [since]' they do not emerge [because]' they are fastened down" onto paper. (Camera Lucida, pg.57) The structure of the poem keeps the images within a confined space. The structure of the poem and the characteristics of the stone, therefore, work well to illustrate Barthes point of rigid and constricting space.
Walter Benjamin would have some additional opinions on Percy Shelley's "Ozymandias." He would begin by comparing the destroyed statue to a museum artifact that recalls a specific time and space. Benjamin notes that the "unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence." (Illuminations, pg.220) He would say that the stone brings forth immediate contact to the past through the limited content of the statue. Benjamin states that the "history of the great works of art tells us about their antecedents' [and] their potentially eternal afterlife in succeeding generations." (Illuminations, pg.71) The stone serves as a reminder of a great king and his vast empire. The statue would hold the story of the ruler that it represents for centuries after the ruler as died. In this manner, the broken statue holds the memory and validates the existence of the ruler who cannot be alive anymore.
Benjamin would go on to say that the stones left represent a fake reality. The perception of reality that is generated through the destroyed statue is completely counterfeit because anything that is a reproduction can not have pure authenticity. Benjamin asserts that in objects like the statue, the "quality of the [subjects'] presence is always depreciated." (Illuminations, pg.221) Since it can not completely take the onlooker to the time of the statue's full shape, the stones that are left are escape the "concept of authenticity." (Illuminations, pg. 220) The reproduction does not completely achieve displacement, but it does serve a purpose in the society. Benjamin believes this artifact to be the "desire of contemporary masses to bring things 'closer' spatially and humanly" that which can no longer be reached. (Illuminations, pg. 223) He asserts that our tendency to hold onto things that no longer exist is manifested into reproductions of people and the times of the past. In this manner, he would say that the statue and maybe even the empire that no longer exists in the poem were modes of bringing closer the ruler that died centuries ago.
Benjamin would also be quick to insert his point of history being a story of the victors. It is with this group that "the adherents of historicism actually empathize." (Illuminations, pg.256) He firmly asserts that history is only a time in which the stories of survivors are told. No one recalls the people who have lost through history. In terms of Shelley's poem, Benjamin would say that it is no wonder that the statue that remains is of the king and not of a commoner who did great deeds. The victorious "manifest themselves in this struggle as courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude." (Illuminations, pg. 255) He believes this to be the case because the power of the victors enables them to make sure that only their story is told. Benjamin suggests that "the victor invariably benefits the rulers [since]' all rulers are the heirs of those who conquered them." (Illuminations, pg.256) Benjamin would say that it is completely natural to find that statue of the king as opposed to the statue of a commoner because he must have been many times victorious in his battles to acquire such a vast empire. He would go on to say that sometimes it should be necessary to track the history of those who have been forgotten. Benjamin would be interested to know the workers that crafted the statue and the castles of the empire. He would note that these figures were also important to the time period. The history of what has never been seen may serve to be more important in certain events than the story of the victors. In this manner, Benjamin would agree that all writing in a sense is of a tropic nature.
In this manner, both Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin would have specific depictions of Percy Shelley's Ozymandias. It seems that on certain underlying levels these thinkers have common foundations of thought although they differ on their views of structuralism. Barthes and Benjamin would both see the remains of the statue as a reminder of what can no longer be seen with the naked eye. The notion of death then is inherent in both their interpretations. Death becomes a process of life that continues on for generations after an individual has stopped living.