Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley is a terrific poem, and in this blog post, we’ll comment on power, and how it shapes individuals, especially in fiction.

Note: This blog post contains spoilers for Watchmen (graphic novel) and the television show Breaking Bad.


The Poem:

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 that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

From The Poetry Foundation (x)

Ozymandias is a well-known poem, and it is for a good reason. With a few lines, Shelley manages to convey deep, political meaning and add a historically-charged tension. The end poem is brilliant: it’s melancholic, it’s frightening, it’s thrilling. But more than that, it symbolizes the death and decay that only a fallen ruler who has watched his kingdom die would know.

What is also great about Ozymandias is that it rewards multiple readings. And there is plenty to gain from studying Shelley’s poem. Also, the wasteland imagery will conjure up pictures of abandoned lands in our present. For example, Pripyat in Ukraine (better known for the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant). Other badlands include graveyards on a rainy day, ghost towns, or even the current state of our world during a global pandemic.

All of this reminds us that although Ozymandias references history long ago, we too, can still fall.

So, what can we learn from the poem? We know power is fragile. But if that is the case, then so is human’s relationship with it. After all, power is temporary.

In the 21st century, Ozymandias will spark two characters in pop culture: Ozymandias, from Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen, and Walter White from the acclaimed television show Breaking Bad.

Over the course of Breaking Bad, we see the rise of Walter White from a humiliated chemistry teacher to drug lord. Yet that all crumbles in the episode ‘Ozymandias’, where his decisions lead to his fall. Not only does this fit into the ‘power is fleeting’ theme, but also reminds us of the tragic elements of power. Walter White’s story is straight out of a Shakespeare tragedy, and that’s why it is difficult to not love it.

As for Ozymandias (Adrian Veidt), one of the six Watchmen, things are more complex. Those familiar with the graphic novel would know that Adrian Veidt does not really lose his power, influence or wealth. (Unless you count losing the respect of his friends as a loss). Rather- the Ozymandias transformation lies in Adrian gaining power.

The ‘twist’ of Watchmen is that Adrian Veidt, in an attempt to solve the Cold War tensions, was plotting to destroy major cities across the world, and blame Dr. Manhattan.

In a simple story, the ‘good guys’ would stop Adrian. Expect they don’t. Adrian launches the controls ‘thirty minutes ago’ and his plan occurs, much to the horror of Walter Kovacs, “Rorschach” and Daniel Dreiberg, “Nite Owl II.” Yet what makes Moore’s graphic novel excellent is that the reader deals with the concept that Adrian was right.

To quote Dr. Manhattan: “Without condoning or condemning, I understand.” Although Adrian is condemned to a life without relating to anyone, he can at least take some peace in knowing that there is another being who understands his actions here.

Moore reshapes power in a unique way. Whereas a weaker writer may get caught up in the ‘power levels’ of their characters, Alan Moore opts for a more nuanced take. He displays the ways a character may gain power when it seems they are losing it. It’s those things that make Watchmen one of, if not the, greatest comic of all time.

In conclusion, Ozymandias by Shelley is a terrific poem. Whilst only two examples are given here, the poem is relevant to real life and fiction. From The Walking Dead to the politics of places such as the European Union, we too, should remember that power is fleeting, and is more happy to desert us, to embrace another.

What are your thoughts? Comment below.

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