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Nature as Eternity: Shelley's "Ozymandias"





I MET a Traveler from an antique land,  
Who said, “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone  
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,  
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,  
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, 5
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.” 10
Look on my works ye Mighty, and despair!  
No thing beside remains. Round the decay  
Of that Colossal Wreck, boundless and bare,  
The lone and level sands stretch far away.  


Separation of society and nature: In this sonnet, there is initially a clear distinction between society and nature: the monument, a thing made and broken, is clearly ranged against the desert. As king, Ozymandias also represents the social whole. Even the rhyme and rhythm of the poem seem to enact this division: the caesura of the final tercet, for example, lays the stress on the brittleness of society, and emphasises that “No thing beside remains” (l.12), and the run-online in line 11, together with the liquids and syllibants in the final line, emphasise the predominance of nature over culture.

Society > individualism > nature: And yet, once we have acknowledged that, additional meanings start to crop up in both the representations of society and nature. As regards the former, the phrase “King of kings” (l. 10) and the “sneer of cold command” (l. 5) add an element of individuality to the king: the uniqueness of this king is both defined by his being primus inter pares and doing what he wants. In this poem, however, what one wants or what uniqueness means is ruled by “passions” (l. 6), and since passions are feelings and feelings are usually assigned to nature, we find that the king that started representing society turns via individualism to nature. In fact, it is this equation of society with individuality and that with nature which makes the reader sense justice meted out in the presence of the shattered monument. If society had been constructed in any other way in the poem, our impression as readers might have been different.

Here Riemann works better than St. Augustine: Nature as metaphysics: As regards nature, here too we can find a transition towards another meaning, best expressed in the last two lines: “boundless and bare, / the lone and level sands stretch far away”. This may be nature, but understood in metaphysical terms, as one big vacuum, a kind of existential void, and the metaphysical understanding of this natural landscape depends wholly on the reader’s recognition of eternity operating in this natural description. This transition from nature to metaphysics via eternity proves how Riemann’s model may supplement St Augustine’s in crucial ways.

daniel.candel@uah.es | ©2008 Daniel Candel Bormann