“Ozymandias” and the irony of meter

Most analyses of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” — as is common in the Romantic and post-Romantic schools of poetic analysis — focus almost exclusively on emotion and imagery. This is not necessarily a bad thing: “Ozymandias” is a poem of sublime lyric power, and the lyric mode has always been emotionally-focused. However, in doing so, these analyses miss another level on which “Ozymandias” is successful: it is a technical masterpiece.

Nearly every line from the poem is highly quotable, and this is no accident. Shelley was a master of meter, and in “Ozymandias” he purposefully breaks and reforms his meter to achieve the effect he’s looking for. In fact, the manner in which he does so, with the scansion variance correlating to the poem’s emotional climax, is arguably a commentary on meter itself (especially in light of the metric breakdown that occurred in poetry’s avant-garde over the latter half of the 19th century).

We see “Ozymandias”, like so many sonnets, open in iambic pentameter:

met / trav– / ler from / an an– / tique land
Who said, / Two vast / and trunk- / less legs / of stone

So far, so good. This is a fairly standard — albeit atmospheric — iambic couplet. Hints to come, however, occur as early as the third line, which scans:

Stand in / the des-ert . . . // . . . Near them, / on the sand,

First of all, the line opens with a trochee. But much more importantly, the reader is left hanging waiting to finish the foot -ert begins. By the time we reach the near, the dangling syllable has resolved the preceding iamb into an amphibrach, allowing near them to open the line’s second half as a trochee — thereby recalling the initial trochaic Stand in. In so doing, Shelley has achieved, purely through cadential manipulation, the effect of a speaker stalling out in their discourse before restarting, an effect concluded with the anapest on the sand, an anapest that returns the stress to the normal iambic pattern,* which then continues

Half sunk / a shat- / tered vis- / age lies, / whose frown,
and wrink- / led lip, / and sneer / of cold / com-mand

But Shelley doesn’t maintain the iambic meter any further. The next line

Tell that / its sculp- / tor well / those pas- / sions read,

begins with a trochee. This is more than just a minor metric stutter, though. The third and sixth lines having trochaic openings are a cue to the reader that things are not as they seem; that even in an extended iambic stretch Shelley is not content to let well enough alone. In fact, the four iambic feet following the trochee function as an aural illusion, a cue to the ear that keep going iambically, even though

Which yet / sur-vive, stamped on / these life- / less things,

continues to break the meter down, now with two trochees instead of just one. The tension between the aural trick and the collapsing meter climaxes with the next line

The hand / that mocked them, / and the heart / that fed;

where there are only, in fact, four stresses. But Shelley has already used trisyllabic feet and alternated trochees and iambs for choriambic effect. Thus the reader is cadentially unaware of the “missing foot” between that mocked and the heart, an aural illusion that allows this poem to sound iambic without actually being iambic. Much like the sculpture this poem describes, the meter employed describing it is problematic.**

But Shelley hasn’t yet reached the poem’s emotional payoff, and, like a fugal counterpoint, the iambic couplet reasserts itself:

And on / the ped- / des-tal, / these words / ap-pear:
My name / is Oz- / zy-man- / dias, King / of Kings;

 Lines which feel like a heroic couplet, and indeed, that’s the irony: they are. Have you noticed that Shelley only maintains iambic couplets and meanwhile keeps fragmenting them and breaking them down? This has all been foreshadowing for what comes next, the naked raw heroic pride overcoming even meter itself!

Look on my / works, ye / Migh-ty, and / des-pair!

A rhapsode of dactylic pride. So what are these “works” “ye Mighty” should “look on” “and despair”? At last the poem resolves itself:

No-thing / be-side / re-mains. Round the / de-cay
Of that / co-los- / sal Wreck, bound-less / and bare,
The lone / and lev- / vel sands stretch far / a-way.

But the resolution is noticeably not iambic. In fact, the iambic incipient Nothing beside remains (note how each individual word here is iambic) functions as an iambic reassertion of itself after the heroic prideful dactyl, but it too is immediately sabotaged by the trochaic Round the. In fact, this is the pattern that repeats itself over the poem’s coda: three iambic feet, then a trochee, then an iamb.

It is the longest stretch of regular meter (or something like meter) the poem has, and the final choriamb — a trochee-iamb pair — also yields a cadential diminuendo and thereby a stretch of yawning vastness.

In doing so Shelley is making a point: “Ozymandias” isn’t just about the overweening pride of a Pharaoh of old to the point where, even after all else is gone, the pride remains: it’s about meter itself. “Ozymandias” is a purposeful deconstruction of meter, a subjugation of heroic couplets, and then a reconstruction, but not a pure reconstruction either — a reconstruction with a twist. “Ozymandias” wants you not to think of free verse, but rather the possibilities available when you aren’t bound to the rigor of a single meter, such as Pope’s heroic couplets, and instead can treat meter like a musical theme, capable of developing variations and resolving itself.

This much has been ignored over the last two centuries of English poetry. It’s time to bring it back.

* You may also note that if you read this line without the long textual caesura (as most speakers do), it resolves as

Stand in / the des- / ert. Near / them, on / the sand,

This introduces the aural iambic illusion which will dominate the middle of the poem.

** It is also worth noting here that the “missing foot” in

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

demands resolution. It’s not for nothing this is a Petrarchan sonnet. This is the volta, the line that concludes the problematic introduced in the octave; in the sestet Shelley introduces two solutions in turn as an epic choice. In so doing he subtly rejects the heroic couplet.

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