A graphic novel I’ve read for another of my classes contains a quote from “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley as a minor detail, the specific excerpt of “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; / Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”. However, I found it fascinating that they chose this specific excerpt considering the wider context of the poem, as one of the characters of the graphic novel was meant to relate to this quote. The graphic novel focuses on many political and social themes, with the character being a “king” of sorts. I thought it might be fitting to apply a political/social lens back to the poem itself to see what interpretation it yields.
One key aspect of the poem is the overconfidence of the king, Ozymandias, who becomes a sort of character in the poem. The above quote alone displays this show of power: he is not just a king, but a king of kings. He commands all people to fall under his rule and his land, as well as preserve all his creations.
However, the poem details a traveler meeting someone and telling them of the statue on which this is engraved—a broken-down, sad-looking old sculpture surrounded by nothing but barren land. The “visage,” or face, of the statue is “shattered,” its detached pieces are “lifeless.” Not only is it broken, the poem’s main voice of the traveler (speaking through quotations) goes to great lengths to show how the statue is truly in ruin. They call the pile of stone “decay,” a word that isn’t often used in the context of such a sturdy material. Stone can be weathered and broken, but “decay” is usually reserved for things that were previously living: such as bodies. The traveler, then, seems to see the “Wreck” as something that, though made of stone, previously had a life to it. This “life” might’ve been the sheer power it displayed, with its “sneer of cold command”—this would make sense, considering that statues such as this one have been used for a long time to remember and pay respect to political leaders and other important figures.
Why the traveler takes great care, then, to emphasize that the sculpture’s reign is long gone, might be interesting. The voice of the traveler doesn’t seem overjoyed nor sad to see the state of the statue, but they do describe in detail how broken it is. The traveler is likely interested by the irony of the statue’s engraved words and the fact that no “works” to “look upon” remain: “Nothing beside remains”, they say, remarking about this irony.
The graphic novel’s excerpt of the poem invites focus on the figure of Ozymandias as incredibly influential but cruel within his time, as it refers to a powerful character within the graphic novel who controls the lives of many people and is a huge public figure. Applying this political/social lens to the original poem, the traveler seems to not only be thinking of the statue as an isolated and ironic story, but the suggested history in all its complexity—here lies a king who was so important and brash, now reduced to nothing though he thought his influence would remain over the wider population forever. Perhaps it hints at the fact that the wider public not only will recognize this hubris and irony, but also that the population can reshape, over time, what is put in place by those in power.