Theme of Temporality and Permanence in “Ozymandias” and “an Ode to a Grecian Urn” Analysis

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Poetry is often perceived to be the art form of the elite because of the fact that it requires critical thought and a certain level of intelligence to comprehend and appreciate.  However, in many cases, there are poems that tackle the same theme from a different perspective while using various poetic devices to demonstrate how a better understanding of the theme can be achieved with certain poems complementing the use of these devices in other poems.  One such poem that seems to be ambiguous at first but read superimposed with another poem becomes more comprehensible is the poem, “An Ode to a Grecian Urn” by John Keats.  “An Ode to a Grecian Urn” is a lengthy poem that describes many visual elements pertaining to a singular inanimate object, the urn; and the understanding of this poem becomes quite easier with the shorter and almost similar treatment of the theme in “Ozymandias” a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

“An Ode to a Grecian Urn” is a lengthy piece that describes the markings or the images etched on the surface of an ancient Grecian urn.  The scenes described in the poem all pertain to cultural and traditional scenery that has to do with the mythology or the culture of the period in which the urn was created.  Initially, it would seem that the poem is simply a description of the urn, but through poetic devices used throughout the poem, the images actually point to a singular theme and that is the preservation of the past or history through the markings on this particular inanimate object.  “Ozymandias” on the other hand, flows in the same way as the previous poem because it outlines the description of the voice of a monument that another traveler has witnessed.  This monument is of the ancient Egyptian King, “Ozymandias”.  Now, if these two poems are placed side by side it easily becomes clear that both poems used the same approach to achieve the desire intention of the poet.  Nevertheless, because Ozymandias is much shorter than the previous poem, the intention becomes immediately clear to the reader.  So for instance, in Ozymandias, in the lines, “”Two vast and trunkless legs of stone / Stand in the desert…/ Tell that its sculptor well those passions read / Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,” (2-3…6-7) the voice immediately implies how the monument was able to preserve the emotions of the sculptor who created the monument hundreds of years ago.

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Despite this having to refer to something else, such as the ability of inanimate objects to record history, it also directly translates into the simple matter of the temporality of abstract concepts and the permanence of concrete representations that very effectively freezes the abstract concepts in time.  Surely, anybody reading these lines would easily get what it means.  In Keats’ poem, “An Ode to A Grecian Urn” however, this same implication is not easily perceived, hence, in the lines, “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness, / Thou foster-child of silence and slow time, / Sylvan historian, who canst thus express / A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:” (1-4) the ‘unravish’d bride’ and ‘Sylvian historian’ hereinto referred is the urn itself which is able to tell many things about the past through its markings, hence, it being referred to as something able to ‘express a flowery tale’.  These lines express exactly the same concept as expressed in the earlier lines from the first poem; that an inanimate object is able to capture past events through the markings or images that are on the object or that the object represents.  However, comparing these four lines with the lines from “Ozymandias” the approach is much more direct with the first poem and the meaning is implied, in this second poem, on the other hand, the expression is oblique and the meaning becomes evident only upon close analysis of the text.  In effect, if the lines described are put side by side, the first poem expresses in simpler terms the same concept that the second poem expresses in more ambiguous or symbolic language.  This however, is not to say that either poem is better than the other; the only sure conclusion that one can derive from this example is the fact that the shorter poem demonstrates how easily an abstract concept can be expressed in easily digestible terms and how the beauty of language can sometimes contribute to the enigma that is often attached to poetry.  Does the first poem help in one’s appreciation of the second?  Perhaps, yes because coming across a simpler portrayal of the same concept would encourage pursuit of other more complex approaches, and no, because the first poem might set forward a mindset that all poetry should be like this and anything that is unlike the first poem in its approaches might be blatantly dismissed as difficult or incomprehensible.

Another example of how the first poem aides in the appreciation and depth of understanding of the second poem can be found in the lines, “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ / Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,” (11-13) from Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias”.  In these lines, the voice expresses, in almost obvious terms, the temporality of past events when subjected to the ravages of time.  Here the voice describes what is left of the monument that once represented the glory days of the ruler who is portrayed in the statue.  One will easily see that the theme of temporality is implied in these lines and going to the second poem, one will find the lines, “As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral! / When old age shall this generation waste, / Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe /     Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,” (45-48) Here now, the abstract theme of temporality of humanity is approached in such a manner that it is contrasted with the permanence of the urn; that as humanity will fade away, the urn will remain.  So, going back to the poem by Shelley, one gets a deeper appreciation and understanding of the lengths Keats went to express the same abstract concept.  Clearly, in these lines from the two poems the reader is forced to pay more attention to the craftiness of the Keats because of the complexity of the expression of theme in the lines.  Nevertheless, while Shelley employed a different approach, such an approach allows the reader to seek other dimensions in other poems because the lines from “Ozymandias” while offering a two-dimensional perspective of the theme, also opens the avenues towards exploration of other existing dimensions of the truth as offered in Keats’ poem.

In these two poems it is quite obvious that the approach used in the first poem aided in acquiring a deeper understanding and appreciation for the second poem.  This is the reason why it is always wise to read simpler poems first before moving on to the more complex, yet more beautiful approaches used by other poets.


Works Cited

Keats, John. “An Ode to a Grecian Urn.” N.p., 2009. Web. 15 Aug. 2010. <>.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Ozymandias.” The Literature Network. N.p., 2008. Web. 15 Aug. 2010. <>.


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Theme of Temporality and Permanence in “Ozymandias” and “an Ode to a Grecian Urn” Analysis. (2017, Mar 13). Retrieved from

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