Structuralism and Poststructuralism Applied. Percy Shelley’s "Ozymandias"

Essay, 2019

5 Pages, Grade: B



According to Barry (2017), the structuralists use scientific methods to analyze a literary work. They look into the conventions of the genre, the history or different forms of art (including other literature) that the literary work refers to. On the other hand, the poststructuralists look into paradoxes and uncertainties as they think that signs’ meanings depend on the perceiver, and different people would have different perceptions. In this essay, we will first look at the background in which Ozymandias is set, and we will analyze the message of the story in the structuralist perspective through the details of the poet, and the history of the king Ozymandias. Then we will look at the uncertainties of the speakers in the poem in the poststructuralist perspective, which expresses Shelley’s dissatisfaction of being only able to hear about the statue from the others.

Background of the poem

British Museum announced its acquisition of a large piece of the statue of the pharaoh Ramesses II (who is called Ozymandias in Greek, and was described by the Greek historian as ‘king of kings’) in around 1817 (although it did not arrive in London until 1821, and Shelly did not have the opportunity to see it because he has moved to Italy by then) (Wikipedia, 2019d). This is believed to have inspired Percy Shelley to compose the poem Ozymandias (Wikipedia, 2019c). Ozymandias, during his reign, defeated the Sherden sea pirates, led several campaigns in Syria, and conquered Tunip, where for 120 years no Egyptian soldiers have reached, erecting statues of him along the way. He also led campaigns in Nubia and Libya and was famous for leading military expeditions (Wikipedia, 2019f). On the statue that was moved to London, Ozymandias challenged all the other people on the world to surpass his achievements (Wikipedia, 2019d).

Percy Shelley did not believe that the society will become better through violent revolution, but only through nature’s evolutions and the increment of virtuousness among the world population, as he expressed through the poem Queen Mab (Wikipedia, 2019e). As a believer in thought-change revolution rather than violent revolution, he fought for the freedom of Irish people by publishing Address to the Irish People, and called for the emancipation of Catholics, such as the abolishment of the penalties imposed on those who refuse to attend church services, according to the Test Act (Wikipedia, 2019b; Wikipedia, 2019d).

Structuralist analysis of the poem

The pharaoh Ozymandias was a king that carried out many expeditions. During the expeditions, statues was erected to praise himself and think he is a great leader: “And on the pedestal these words appear:/My name is Ozymandias, king of kings” (Wikpedia, 2019c). However, unlike philosophers, Shelley did not think war starters are people worth praised. Land that won through the wars will be taken by others eventually, and nothing will remain, unlike philosophy: “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare” (Wikpedia, 2019c). What remained is only a wreck, sent to England, where not much people will know the name of Ozymandias, besides the academia. After all, Ozymandias resembles his name, which means “air rule” or “rule of nothing (Combetta, 2011). Nothing from the rule of Ozymandias is left but the air from the era.

From Shelley’s political stance in fighting for Irish independence, the poem may be condemning the British Empire in the 1810s, when the British, through the rule of East India Company, has evicted the French from Egypt, acquired Java from the Dutch, and conquered Penang, by the time the poem was published (Wikipedia, 2019a). The British empire’s violent war against the other nations will not bring Britain glory, and eventually the land will be gone and seized by other regimes, just as the land conquered by Ozymandias. Shelley may have called for the freedom of Egypt, Java and Penang from Britain through the poem, although he cannot expressly say it out or otherwise it may amount to treason.

Poststructuralist analysis of the poem

The most obvious ambiguity noticeable from the poem is the identity of the speaker. In the first sentence: “I met a traveler from an antique land”, the I here may mean a person wandering around Egypt (Wikipedia, 2019c). The traveler than becomes the speaker as he describes what he saw in the desert (the remnants of the statue of Ozymandias): “Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone/ Stand in the desert.” (Wikipedia, 2019c). The speaker than tells what is written on the statue of Ozymandias, mimicking the voice of him, and Ozymandias becomes the speaker: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings” (Wikipedia, 2019c). As the description ends, it seems that the original speaker or the second speaker (the traveler) has come back to describe the environment of the desert where the statue was found: “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare”. It could have been the traveler continuingly telling the first speaker about what is like in the desert, or that the first speaker went to see the desert and the statue himself. The constant change of the speaker brings the reader across different places and different time in history without travelling for real. As a man in England, what Shelley could do is only to hear the news of the removal of Ozymandias’ statue from other people and imagine going there while meditating or dreaming. The poem shows the despair of him not being able to see the statue directly and immediately, in which one speaker (first speaker resembling Shelley) has to listen to another speaker for information, layer by layer.


In terms of structuralism, according to the background in which Ozymandias and the details of the poet, we can deduce that the poem maybe talking about Shelly’s condemnation over the expansion of the British Empire. In terms of poststructuralism, we can know that Shelley tries to express the despair of being uncertain with the news of the statue, through the constant change of the poem’s speaker. (999 words)


Excerpt out of 5 pages


Structuralism and Poststructuralism Applied. Percy Shelley’s "Ozymandias"
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
ENGE5710 Critical Approaches in Literature
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
structuralism, poststructuralism, applied, percy, shelley’s, ozymandias
Quote paper
Kwan Lung Chan (Author), 2019, Structuralism and Poststructuralism Applied. Percy Shelley’s "Ozymandias", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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