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Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe 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 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 the colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Understanding and interpreting poetry often seems very difficult. There are so many rules and ways of interpretation that it seems that only a few can really deal with poetry. This is a popular misconception among many students at college and university. In fact, understanding and being able to analyse poetic works is amazingly easy if a few basic concepts are understood.

The poem that we will use as an example in this article is the famous Ozymandias by Shelly. This poem is often prescribed at undergraduate and graduate level.

Firstly, the "formula" for understand a poem revolves around the following three basic ideas:
1.What is the Poem about?
2.Why was it written?
3.How has language been used in the poem to express the main intention/s of the poem?

Firstly, read through the poem in its entirety. Do not worry if you do not understand some words or lines. The object here is to get to the gist of the poem. In other words, to form some general idea of what the poem is about. This is called finding the main theme or themes of the poem. If we read through Ozymandias we can clearly see that the poem is about a statue found by a traveller in the desert. Secondly we see the this statue has certain characteristics. It is in a state of ruin. The face of the statue which is still clearly visible does not have a pleasant expression. The Words used , like " wrinkled lip" convey a rather unpleasant countenance. But remember, at this stage we are only looking for the general idea of what the poem is about. As we read on we see that the statue represents a cruel ruler or King who subjugated his people. The King is arrogant and tells those who " look on his works" to be afraid of his power. But where is this powerful and cruel king now? All that remains of him and his works are a few broken pieces of sculpture. Obviously, the king's threatening words are meaningless and without power. We are immediately struck by the irony in this poem. It is ironic that this cruel and arrogant king has now become nothing more than a fragment of stone lost in the desert.

Now that we have an idea of what the poem is about we can begin to deal with the second question: Why was the poem written? This might sound strange, but all literature should have a purpose, even if that purpose is only a beautiful piece of writing. What purpose or message could this poem have for the reader. The poem is about a cruel tyrant who, ironically, is now nothing more than lifeless rock. The poet could be trying to suggest the emptiness of tyrannical power; or how those who think that they are powerful are soon brought to their knees by the process of time. Another possibility is that the poem was written to express the uselessness of temporal and earthly power which will be destroyed in time. These are a few suggestions but always remember that literature is not a definite science. You are allowed to have your own interpretations as long as these interpretations can be supported from the text.
Thirdly, once we have established what the poem is about and have some idea of its purpose, we can then study the poem and look at how the language is used to achieve its meaning.

For example, in the first half of the poem, the poet uses words to create a clear and precise image of the tyrant king: words like" frown", "sneer", " cold command", all produce an image of the old king as a cruel and unfeeling tyrant. These words are called images as they produce a "picture" of the king.

In the second half of the poem the poet uses words to contrast the arrogant speech of the king with the actual reality of his shattered face and lost kingdom. The king shouts out that people should fear him as he has a great and powerful kingdom. But the poet uses language to express the opposite: "Nothing beside remains...." There is only the desert which emphasizes that the arrogance of the king is unfounded and that time has destroyed his kingdom and his power.

The above is a very basic introduction to the poem. But the method suggested can be applied to any poem or even a prose work and hopefully will encourage those who have had difficulty with poetry in the past.