The concept of excessive pride leading to negative consequences is a universal theme, showcasing the vanity of power and the fragility of glory. Throughout history, the expansion of empires is simultaneously shadowed by their impending collapse, with emperors rising only to ultimately fall.
"Ozymandias" is a sonnet written by the reputable English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1817, rendering ruler Ozymandias “an emblem of self-deluding hybris, the ambition to be remembered favourably by posterity and the refusal to acknowledge time’s destruction of human achievement” (Stephens, 2009, p. 1). This article seeks to analyse the futility of political power as condemned in "Ozymandias" and draw juxtapositions with today’s political turbulence, tapping into the contemporary significance of Ozymandias. It will consider critics’ views on the detrimental effects of arrogance, while drawing attention to the importance of humility as a leadership trait.
Fig. 1. Percy Bysshe Shelley. (1818). Ozymandias. [Image of the Poem printed page]. The Examiner Newspaper.
Summary and Context of the Sonnet
Shelley uses the title “Ozymandias” to make reference to the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II, widely considered to be one of the most powerful pharaohs of Egypt, who was buried in the Valley of Kings. The poem describes the decaying fragments of an ancient king’s statue in a vast desert. All that remains of the statue are two upright stone legs and a “shattered” head half-buried in the sand (Shelley, 1977, lines 2-3). On the pedestal of the statue, a bombastic inscription describes Ozymandias as the “King of Kings” whose mighty achievements evoke a sense of sublime and despair in all who gaze upon them (Shelley, 1977, line 10). When the words in the inscription of the statue “are savagely contradicted with the ruins and the location”, the whole poem becomes a mocking “comment on the transience of power” (Walker, 2007, p. 7). Under this scope, the pedestal’s claim takes on new ironic dimensions, as one despairs not at the sight of Ozymandias’s legacy, but at how the ephemerality of time renders humanity, leaving Ozymandias’s words pitifully naïve and empty. The statue's expression divulges arrogance as the king's core character trait. Ozymandias wears a “frown” along with a “sneer of cold command”, expressions indicative of his cruel condescension towards his subordinates, being himself “the hand that mocked them and the heart that fed” (Shelley, 1977, lines 5-8). These “passions”, which once characterized the king, and "which yet survive" on “lifeless things” (i.e., the statue), show that such brutality and hollowness now only exist on the face of a broken statue (Shelley, 1977, lines 6-7). It becomes evident, then, that tyranny, the evil force in human nature breeds its own opposite, the demise". The incarnation of evil shown in the figure of Ozymandias reinstates the idea that evil must be overthrown by itself”, indicating that tyranny breeds human nature's catastrophe (Zaman & Chakraborty, 2019, p. 67).
Fig. 2. Jean-Léon Gérôme. (1886). Bonaparte Before the Sphinx. [Painting, Acrylic on Canvas]. Hearst Castle, San Simeon, California.
Although it specifically exposes the futility of Ozymandias’s tyranny, the poem transcends its subject matter, expressing a general aversion and criticism towards any form of absolutism. Shelley was a rebel, and his revolutionary ideology was largely shaped by his era's turbulent social context. The French Revolution and the oppressive persona of Napoleon sparked the questioning of the aristocracy, enabling an emphasis on the fleeting nature of tyrannical institutions. Remarkably, even though the poem is a 14-line sonnet, it deviates from the standard sonnet convention in both its form and rhyme scheme. This poetic strategy depicts Shelley’s aspiration to vehemently challenge the established norm, both political and poetic (Spacey, 2022).
In contrast to the ephemeral nature of political power, the message of the sonnet is timeless, transcending the centuries and tragically becoming pertinent to contemporary political discourses. The inscription of the forgotten crumbling statue constitutes an “achievement to bind up all these aspects of fragmentation and dislocation and give the conception of distance in the poem, an eerily contemporary message about power, history, and civilization” (Walker, 2007, p. 7). Despite resonating with the modern political climate, the moral of the poem does not seem to echo in the ears of modern political leaders, who continue to shamelessly commit atrocities in pursuit of their imperialistic pretensions. Recent historical leading personas such as despotic WWII figures Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, the most recent former U.S. President Donald Trump, and the current Russian President Vladimir Putin are just a few individuals who could arguably be regarded as modern Ozymandias. Given the fact that “the persona arrogant individuals attempt to project is one of omnipotence and invincibility” (Silverman et al., 2012, p. 22) and that "arrogance is engaging in behaviors intended to exaggerate a person’s sense of superiority by disparaging others" (Johnson et al., 2010), it comes as no surprise that many leaders act under the effect of arrogance.
Paradoxically enough, humility in leadership, meaning the capacity to act with heightened self-awareness, exhibit emotional intelligence and take into consideration constructive criticism, has been proven to be a key leadership trait that could readily drive a positive outcome and long-term impact, as it has been correlated with elevated leadership competence (Yang et al., 2019). In other words, humble leaders outperform conceited ones. As it has been further pointed out in empirical findings, arrogance is inversely proportional to cognitive capacities and self-esteem (Bauer et al., 2008; Johnson et al., 2010). Hence, it becomes evident that “engaging in socially demeaning and dominating behaviours may be defensive compensation for (potentially accurate) perceptions of personal inadequacies, as arrogant leaders tend to make unfavourable evaluations of their ability” (Silverman, 2012, p. 24). Interestingly and along the same lines, Yang et al. (2019) in their meta-analysis provide evidence that “when the leader perceives that his/her followers possess capabilities of a high order, the leader would be more likely to express humility” (p. 8). Consider the examples of Jesus Christ, Buddha, and Mahatma Gandhi, who embraced fairness and modesty in their practices and who are still until now widely regarded as epitomes of humbleness.
Fig. 3. Oldrich Kulhánek. (1996). Portrait of Arrogance. [Etching]. Artwork web page.
The ephemeral nature of glory and its inherent vulnerability to the withering force of time is a universal theme, encompassing all aspects of history and civilisation. Ultimate truth transcends momentary spatiotemporal boundaries and can only be perceived over the course of time, accompanied by an ironic deconstruction of political grandeur. In "Ozymandias", the failure to internalise the notion of the impermanence of political sovereignty is aptly intertwined with an ironic disregard for impending annihilation. Arrogance is then depicted as an ignorant way of reasoning, driving a false sense of accomplishment which generates hatred and antagonism, with brutal leaders being ultimately castigated for their deeds. Following recent historical and political events, one can only draw parallels between Ozymandias’s sense of entitlement and modern ruthless examples of power. Revisiting the poem and interpreting it through a contemporary lense can serve as a reminder of the flimsy nature of things. Hence, "Ozymandias" becomes a breeding ground for the comforting idealistic notion that a present period of oppression will be inevitably overturned by a power ensuring bliss and respect for everyone.
Johnson, R. E., Silverman, S. B., Shyamsunder, A., Swee, H.-Y., Rodopman, O. B., Cho, E., & Bauer, J. (2010). Acting superior but actually inferior?: Correlates and consequences of workplace arrogance. Human Performance, 23(5), 403.
Shelley, P. B. (1977). Shelley’s Poetry and Prose (1st Ed.). WW Norton & Co. Silverman, S., Johnson, R., Mcconnell, I., & Carr, A. (2012). Arrogance: A formula for leadership failure. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 50, 21–28.
Spacey, A. (2022, July 12). Analysis of poem 'Ozymandias' by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Owlcation. https://owlcation.com/humanities/Analysis-of-Poem-Ozymandias-by-Percy-Bysshe-Shelley#:~:text=Ozymandias%20is%20a%20commentary%20on,bare%2F%20lone Stephens, W. (2009). Ozymandias: Or, writing, lost libraries, and wonder. MLN, 124(5), S155–S168. Walker, R. J. (2007). Labyrinths of deceit: Culture, modernity and identity in the nineteenth century. Liverpool University Press. Yang, J., Zhang, W., & Chen, X. (2019). Why do leaders express humility and how does this matter: A rational choice perspective. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, Article 1925. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01925 Zaman, B., & Chakraborty, K. (2019). Transience in Shelley’s Ozymandias: A poetic appeal to human’s finer instincts. IOSR Journal Of Humanities And Social Science, 5, 65-69.
Cover Image: Zak, A. (2012). Ozymandias. [Painting]. Fine Art America. https://fineartamerica.com/featured/ozymandias-alex-zak.html Figure 1: Shelley, P. B. (1818). Ozymandias. [Image]. The Examiner Newspaper. https://www.nypl.org/blog/2018/07/06/romantic-interests-ozymandias-shelley-dormouse Figure 2: Gérôme, J. L. (1886). Bonaparte Before the Sphinx. [Painting]. Hearst Castle, San Simeon, California. Figure 3: Kulhánek, O. (1996). Portrait of Arrogance. [Etching]. Mutual Art. https://www.mutualart.com/Artwork/Portrait-of-the-arrogance/6EB9BF00F7E649F0