2

Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem Ozymandias is written in iambic pentameter and contains the famous lines

'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'

I can think of a few different ways that the name Ozymandias could be proncounced, but all of them have five syllables. However, to fit the meter it should be only four syllables. Wikipedia gives "oz-ee-mand-yəs" as a 4-syllable pronunciation, but to me as a modern British English speaker this feels kind of forced.

My question is whether a four-syllable pronunciation would have been more natural in the 1810s when the poem was written, and if so, what that pronunciation would have been.

At one point I thought it might be a linguistic trick, in which Ozymandias' hubris is so great that he demands an extra syllable in his line, but the Wikipedia page also includes a poem by Horace Smith at around the same time, which is also in iambic pentameter and contains the line

"I am great OZYMANDIAS," saith the stone,

This also requires "Ozymandias" to have four syllables, suggesting that the extra syllable isn't a quirk of Shelley's poem.

To reiterate, this question is about how the name "Ozymandias" would have naturally been pronounced in Shelley's time. Many comments and answers say that the extra syllable can be elided or unstressed, which is fair enough. However, I'm interested in how it would have been pronounced historically. Would Shelley and Smith have seen it as an extra-metrical syllable that they would have elided or un-stressed in order to fit it to the meter, or would they simply have thought of "Ozymandias" as being a four-syllable word in the first place, with the modern five-syllable pronunciation being due to a shift that occurred afterwards? I'm looking for answers that concretely address the historical pronunciation.

  • shmoop.com/ozymandias/rhyme-form-meter.html – user66974 Jun 26 '16 at 7:57
  • 1
    @Josh61 that's quite interesting, thanks. But for the sake of other readers I should point out that your link doesn't directly address my question. – Nathaniel Jun 26 '16 at 8:01
  • How do you scan No-thing be-side re-mains: round the de-cay? The scansion is as irregular as the rhyme scheme. – deadrat Jun 26 '16 at 8:09
  • @deadrat that's addressed in Josh61's link - the scansion is a bit odd but it's pentameter throughout, except for the line that contains Ozymandias' name. The same is true of Horace Smith's poem. – Nathaniel Jun 26 '16 at 8:19
  • ( @deadrat I'd always assumed that that line should be forced into iambic, i.e. noTHING beSIDE reMAINS: round THE deCAY, but that link tells me this is wrong.) – Nathaniel Jun 26 '16 at 8:20
3

English verse is qualitative, not quantitative: it runs stress-to-stress rather than syllable-to-syllable, so an extra reduced syllable here or there is negligible.

Moreover, English poets have great freedom to play against strict "meter" for local rhythmic effect. The pentameter line in the English tradition is predominantly iambic, but variation is permitted at any point: any foot may be realized with what strict metric would regard as a trochee or anapaest or dactyl or even a spondee.

And in fact the pentameter line is only formally pentameter: there is a continuous wrestling match between the nominal five "feet" and the underlying four-beat rhythm. Consider for instance Prospero's line from The Tempest:

In the dark backward and abysm of time.

That's impossible to scan as even approximately iambic pentameter without grave deviation from ordinary speech rhythms. But as a four-beat line it's perfectly natural, and does not feel at all out of place.

in the dark backward and abysm oftime.

Shelley's line is not nearly so deviant as this. Shelly does not depart radically from measure or openly assert the dominance of beat, he merely takes advantage of the contrast between the opening proclamative long syllables (almost a spondee) and the long sequence of short syllables in the polysyllabic name to 'fuzz' the collapse of the 1-2-3 stresses into two beats.

  • It is possible that this is the whole explanation, but it still seems odd that Smith did the exact same thing, squeezing an extra syllable into the line containing Ozymandias' name. – Nathaniel Jun 26 '16 at 13:12
  • @Nathaniel There's no "extra" syllable, qualitatively; and there's no possible way of wrenching Ozymandias into an English sonnet unless you accept the extra syllable or agree to understand -ia- as a glide of some sort. It doesn't matter which; it only bothers people who think poetry follows rules instead of the rules following the poetry. – StoneyB Jun 26 '16 at 14:59
  • Yes, I know those are the only options. The question is about how Shelley would have pronounced it. – Nathaniel Jun 26 '16 at 23:55

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.