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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.

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  • shmoop.com/ozymandias/rhyme-form-meter.html
    – user66974
    Jun 26, 2016 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.
    – N. Virgo
    Jun 26, 2016 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, 2016 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.
    – N. Virgo
    Jun 26, 2016 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.)
    – N. Virgo
    Jun 26, 2016 at 8:20

4 Answers 4

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Looking at Shelley's poetry, it seems that he treats any occurrence of unaccented /iə/ as a single syllable. For example, consider the following lines:

Of some mysterious and deserted fane,
Breathed o'er his dark fate one melodious sigh:
Whose windings gave ten thousand various tongues
Made the high virtue of the patriots fail:
And see, the Tyrant's gem-wrought chariot glide.
In one Elysium or one winding-sheet!
By love, or dream, or god, or mightier Death

These are all iambic pentameter, and they all scan only if you treat /iə/ as a single syllable.

It's also the case that many old hymns with the word glorious treat it as two syllables, even though it is generally considered a three-syllable word today. For example, O Holy Night (lyrics written in 1855) contains the line

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn,

where glo-rious is sung on two notes.

Shelley treats the word Ozymandias /ˌɒ.ziˈmæn.diəs/ just the same as these other words; an unstressed /iə/ is considered a single syllable. This seems strange, because Walker's pronouncing dictionary from London, 1791, roughly contemporaneous with Shelley, treats glorious as three syllables. It's possible that it was pronounced as a diphthong, although I don't know the details.

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  • I wonder whether to read Coleridge’s carrion as having two syllables or three in the line “To frighten the wolf and carrion-crow” from his Fear, Famine, and Slaughter. I read it as three in my head, but now I don’t know whether I should have. // It might make sense to write this proposed tautosyllabic /iə/ sequence as /jə/ to show it’s a rising diphthong with a semi-consonant glide at the front and schwa as its syllabic nucleus. That’s like what we do with feud /fjud/ so that nobody can think we meant more than one syllable there like we’d meant /fi.ud/ or /fijud/.
    – tchrist
    Oct 5, 2022 at 0:52
  • @tchrist: Coleridge's meter is much looser in Fear, Famine, and Slaughter, so it would work either way. And it's easier just to pronounce it the modern way. Further I don't really know whether Shelley would have pronounced /iə/ as a rising diphthong or not; I think that we might be imposing modern sensibilities pronouncing it that way. Oct 5, 2022 at 1:00
  • Nice example, it's almost as if he constructed it deliberately to make a point
    – N. Virgo
    Oct 5, 2022 at 11:01
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I like

/ɒ zi ˈmæn di əs/.

You can find audio tracks of this in Oxford. The second pronunciation stresses the first syllable, so OZ-ymandias.

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  • Can you provide a link?
    – Mitch
    Apr 1, 2020 at 0:47
  • @Mitch oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/us/definition/english/ozymandias
    – user379412
    Apr 1, 2020 at 0:47
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    Both entries at that site have main stress on the third syllable and secondary stress on the first. But yes, Stress on OZ. As an aside I disagree with the second AmE pronunciation of the first syllable, it sounds off to me, I pronounce it as the THOUGHT vowel ɒ / ɔː(in GenAmE).
    – Mitch
    Apr 1, 2020 at 1:04
  • Those both have five syllables, though, to my ears at least - so they wouldn't have fit the iambic pentameter.
    – N. Virgo
    Apr 1, 2020 at 14:42
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Using caps to denote stressed syllables, here are my scansions:

"my NAME is OZ-y-MAN-dias, KING of KINGS:

and

"i am GREAT OZ-y-MAN-dias," SAITH the STONE,

Both are pentameter.

The first relies on elision of "dias" to make it act as one unstressed syllable. That works because "KINGS" has to be stressed so that it forces the elision.

The second works the same way with "SAITH" forcing the elision.

The only peculiarity with the second is that the line begins with a pyrrhic/spondee combination, a fairly common metrical substitution in iambic pentameter poems, sometimes called a double iamb. See #3 here: https://forums.mosaicmusings.net/index.php?showtopic=7492.

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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.

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  • 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.
    – N. Virgo
    Jun 26, 2016 at 13:12
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    @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. Jun 26, 2016 at 14:59
  • Yes, I know those are the only options. The question is about how Shelley would have pronounced it.
    – N. Virgo
    Jun 26, 2016 at 23:55
  • @N.Virgo as there were no phonographs in Shelley's time how on earth would we know?
    – BoldBen
    Oct 5, 2022 at 8:31
  • @boldben it's my understanding that we know quite a lot about the historical pronunciation of words. I'm no expert on how linguists do their job, but you can watch Shakespeare plays on YouTube with their original pronunciation, for example.
    – N. Virgo
    Oct 5, 2022 at 10:48

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