The theme of power is explored in these two sonnets by contrasting the insignificance of human power in the face of God’s power. In ‘Ozymandias’, God’s power is symbolised as a time to emphasise the fragility of human power in comparison with God. The sonnet is told from the perspective of a traveller who tells of the ruins of a statute intended to commemorate a once-great ruler, with only ‘trunkless legs of stone’ and a ‘shattered visage’ remaining in the sand (Shelley, lines 2 – 4). The use of alliteration further emphasises this, as the statue’s surroundings are described as ‘boundless and bare, with the ‘lone and level sands stretching on across the horizon (Shelley, lines 13 – 14). The rhythmic effect created by the repeated plosives highlights the certainty of time, and the liquid consonants reflect the calmness of the desert, shaping the image of barren land around the statue. In addition, the statue is seen not by the narrator, but as a traveller, creating even more layers of removal in the sonnet which further diminishes Ozymandias’ power. It is ironic that a great ruler such as Ozymandias, who declared himself the ‘King of Kings’ (Shelley, line 11), should be lost in time and forgotten, reduced to the broken remnants of a statue taken over by the desert. The sonnet is about Ozymandias’ love for himself, but neither the narrator nor traveller know of him, much less love him. In this way, the use of irony and specific lexical choices emphasises the fleeting nature of human power, while God, symbolised by time, is a constant presence and will continue to exist, representing the immortality that Ozymandias failed to achieve.
In the same way, Donne’s depiction of God’s power as particularly violent highlights the weakness of man. Violent imagery is used throughout the poem as the narrator entreats God to exercise harsher methods to enter his heart for the sake of his salvation. The first line of the sonnet, ‘Batter my heart, already foreshadows the theme of violence that runs through the rest of the sonnet (Donne, line 1). ‘Batter’ is a violent action commonly used to describe the complete destruction of a physical item, which implies that the narrator wants his heart to be completely destroyed. It also creates a sense of pain in the reader’s mind, as the ‘heart’ is a vital organ and damage to it emphasises man’s powerlessness in the hands of God. Similar to ‘Ozymandias’, the use of alliteration further emphasises the intensity of God’s power. The repetition of plosive consonants in the line ‘break, blow, burn’ stresses the violent action words, and highlights the strength and brutality of God as opposed to man (Donne, line 4). Instead of giving God human qualities to accommodate human understanding, the sonnet heightens God’s power by the use of specific lexical choices.
The theme of power is also explored by the love that it elicits. In ‘Ozymandias’, the king is described as having a ‘frown’, ‘wrinkled lip’ and ‘sneer of cold command’, implying that he was a cruel and ruthless leader (Shelley, lines 4 – 5). The alliteration of the hard-sounding ‘I’m in ‘cold command’ reflects the harshness of Ozymandias’ rule. He commanded respect without having to treat his people kindly for them to obey. Ozymandias loves himself, as evidenced by the description of himself on the statue’s inscription. His self-appointed title as the ‘King of Kings’ has biblical connotations and is arrogant, as though he thinks himself on par or even more powerful than God. The inscription also commands people to ‘look on… and despair’ (Shelley, line 12), as Ozymandias believes that no one can compete with his glory. Historically, many great leaders such as Hitler and Stalin were extremely cruel and yet they had the support of millions. In a similar fashion, the love Ozymandias has for himself, in conjunction with his conceit and arrogance, gives him power. In addition, the line ‘the hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed’ (Shelley, line 8), makes use of juxtaposition to reiterate the message that people follow powerful figures regardless of their morality or lack thereof. The ‘hand’ represents Ozymandias taking advantage of the people, and ‘mocked’ implies that he belittled his subjects, instead of protecting them/reaching out his HANDS in kindness. In contrast, the ‘heart that fed’ implies that he loves his subjects, although it is more likely that he merely loved the power they give him and exploited the people, using them for his own gain.
In contrast, the love in ‘Holy Sonnet 14’ is far more intimate. It is presented as an especially personal conversation from the narrator to God, as the narrator is desperate to experience God’s love. Donne makes use of metaphorical language to emphasise his willingness to submit to the power of God, as God is presented as a blacksmith who has to ‘break, blow, burn’ in order to ‘mend’ the narrator, who is the damaged item in this metaphor (Donne, lines 2 – 4). By symbolising himself as an item in need of repair, the narrator diminishes his status and surrenders the power to God. The narrator views himself as inferior to God, whom he views as omnipotent and mighty, and thinks it necessary to be controlled by divine power. In addition, sonnets are typically written for one’s lover, and yet ‘Holy Sonnet 14’ is addressed to God. The language is incredibly lyrical and passionate, which is synonymous with a love sonnet which implies that the narrator loves God in more than a spiritual manner. This is further supported by the use of words such as ‘betrothed’, ‘ravish’ and ‘chaste’, which have martial and sexual connotations (Donne, lines 10, 14). The narrator desires to witness an epic example of God’s love and seeks to be completely destroyed in order that he can be made new again according to God’s will. This is an example of the love that the narrator has for God, as the power of his love is such that he pleads with God to take whatever measures are necessary to enter his heart. Asking God to commit violence is a startling notion, and is a testament to the power of the narrator’s devotion to God.
The sonnets also explore the theme of power by associating it with death. In ‘Ozymandias’, Shelley draws parallels between the ruins of the statue and Ozymandias the leader, as the statue is ‘shattered’ and ‘half sunk’ in the sand, and likewise the ruler represented is also long dead (Shelley, line 4). The irony in this is that Ozymandias commissioned the statue of himself with the intention of leaving behind a legacy that stands for all time as a means to outsmart death. And yet, all that remains is a ‘colossal Wreck’ (Shelley, line 13). This oxymoron is a reflection of Ozymandias’ predicament, as ‘colossal’ refers to the formerly prominent statue and ruler, and ‘Wreck’ refers to what has become of them both. The personification of ‘Wreck’ in this line stresses the state of disrepair that the statue is in, further contrasting Ozymandias’ previous status and power with the ruin that remains, highlighting his fall from grace. The scene of ruin and ‘decay’ signifies that even he cannot escape the clutches of death, such is its power over man. In the same way, an entire civilisation is now taken over by the desert, with ‘nothing beside remains remaining except for ‘lone and level sands’ (Donne, lines 13 – 15), the alliteration further emphasising the barren nature as previously discussed. Ozymandias declared himself to be the greatest ruler, and yet even he, whose power was so immense that his supremacy could be discerned from a statue, had no defence against death. This conveys the message that death erases any human power despite mankind’s futile attempts to outlast earthly limitations. Together, the juxtapositions of paradoxical symbols of imprisonment and slavery as opposed to freedom and chastity as opposed to ravishment, convey the speaker’s desperation as he understands that he cannot save himself in the face of death, and accentuates his heartfelt plea to God to take whatever measures, regardless of their severity, to deliver him from sin and grant him salvation.
Power is a central theme explored in Ozymandias and Holy Sonnet 14. By utilising a variety of language techniques such as irony and metaphor, as well as discussing the theme of power in conjunction with additional themes like love and death, both poems explore the different facets of power, such as human power and divine power. The theme of power communicates the notion that human power is immensely insignificant when examined in contrast with divine power, in particular God and nature, despite man’s exceeding desire to attain it and the reverence of powerful figures. In the same way, the theme of death is explored by underlining its ability to erase human power. Ozymandias and Holy Sonnet 14 examine various aspects of power and emphasises the message that human power is impermanent, with any accomplishments that are achieved in life eventually washed away by time.