Occultism In "Ozymandias" And "The Second Coming"

From times of antiquity to those of the present day, there exists the ponderance of the existential and the spiritual. Their connection to one another, and the ideas that encompass them both. Whether or not one believes in the concept of the soul, there exists a deeper meaning to understand it among many individuals. Artists, theologians, authors, common people, and even scientists seek to know more about the soul. Whether to solidify an ideology, to disprove theories, or because of mere curiosity. There also exists the desire to understand the “hidden world”, which can encompass the supernatural, the mystical, and magic beliefs, practices, and phenomena. Things like the existence of the soul, the cycle of the universe, the impermanence of the material, and the permanence of the immaterial. This desire can be encapsulated by a single word; Occultism. That desire is profoundly and undeniably human and is prevalent in both Ozymandias and The Second Coming.’ The impermanence of all things is more prevalent in Ozymandias by Percy Shelley than it is in The Second Coming by William Yeats. That is not to say they are in confliction, just that their central themes are different. The impermanence in Ozymandias is a central theme of the poem, and it is used as a critique of political powers and institutions of influence. This impermanence is used to show that no matter how powerful one becomes, or how influential their works, inevitably, they too will cease to exist under the duress of time.’ Ozymandias establishes the setting of a story from the first line “I met a traveler from an antique land”. This tells us that the narrator has met an individual, specifically a traveler. This conveys that the narrator is being told a story from someone who is well-versed in the world, as the traveler seems to have experienced many more things compared to the narrator.

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The “antique land” establishes that the rest of the story (what was in that land) is in fact, very old. This is important for the final lines, and quickly designates that there is history.’ Lines 2-11 simply establish an image of “Ozymandias” and who this individual may have been. It is important to note, that only descriptors of a ruined statue are given before an actual name. This tells us that “Ozymandias” is not remembered for their works, their feats, or even themselves, but only by their ruined plaque which tells of them. “Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown, / And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,” shows that the ruined and desolate statue in the desert is of a cold and merciless despot. “Tell that its sculptor well those passions read / Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,” stand out as unique. It shows that the image or the individual represented by the statue is not remembered, but that the passion of the sculptor is. This is another way of saying that artists’ passions and works survive longer than the reign of despotic rulers and political institutions. Despite the impermanence of the material, art and passion seem to withstand the sands of time more so than anything else.’

It may also be argued, that passion is immaterial, and therefore impermanent. As emotion and feeling may be fleeting, they are ultimately immaterial and therefore permanent. However, in certain world religions, (namely Buddhism) there exists the belief that all things mental and physical are impermanent. Simply put: things that are thought, felt, experienced, and sensed are subject to change. This belief of impermanence is known in Sanskrit as “Anitya” and the understanding that it encompasses everything is considered one of the first steps in the path to Buddhist enlightenment. This becomes relevant to the last few lines of Ozymandias as impermanence comes to the forefront of the poem.’ “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.” gives us the simple fact that “Ozymandias” and “his works” no longer exist. Aside from the stone statue there is nothing left of them or their history. It also shows that the ruined statue will eventually be subjected to the same fate, whether it be due to the desert winds of change or the sands of time, we are left unsure.

It is unknown if Shelley was even remotely familiar with Buddhism, but it is of my belief that he would look at it with curiosity and understanding, as the belief of impermanence (Anitya) would ring true and resonate with his poem Ozymandias.’ Art can be from many different mediums, and the written word is its own type of art. Authors are artists of pen and paper, and they may seek inspiration from many different mediums. Just as Percy Shelley would have been inspired by Buddhism, William Yeats would have been, and has been inspired by occult works. Yeats was notoriously involved in the occult, and even went on to create his own philosophy at one point, believing in “gyres” and history being guided by fate. This is where ouroboros comes in.’ Ouroboros is the symbol of a snake or a dragon eating its own tail and represents infinity. This can also be interpreted as the cyclical nature of the universe, and the repeating of history. The Second Coming by William Yeats has ouroboric properties, as it implies the repetition of history and is riddled with both spiritual and occult symbolism and imagery.

Yeats was clearly inspired by the occult, and it is no stretch to say he may have been familiar with the concept of ouroboros.’ Yeats fascination with “gyres” or the spiral of history is an interesting and dynamic concept which he utilizes in his poetry. “Turning and turning in the widening gyre” establishes a premise for the rest of the poem and portrays its ouroboric nature. For Yeats, “gyres” are the cycle of history, and The Second Coming is a portrayal of well, the second coming. For there to be a second coming there must have been a first. This “second coming” however is not of the Jesus from Christianity, but a “rough beast”. To some, this may be a chilling statement. To have the revered second coming be a “rough beast” as opposed to Jesus would shake the foundation of Christianity to its core. Perhaps that is the point though. For there to be this ultimate rebirth and this ouroboric cycle to come full circle, would it not be foundation shattering?’ There are apocalyptic connotations implied in The Second Coming:’ The falcon cannot hear the falconer;’ Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;’ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,’ The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere’ The ceremony of innocence is drowned;’ The best lack all conviction, while the worst’ Are full of passionate intensity. ‘

These lines all state the same thing. That the world is just… wrong. Falcons cannot hear their masters, things are crumbling, anarchy reigns, innocence is drowned in blood, and the hierarchy of individuals is flipped on its head. The Second Coming is coming, and the world is reacting to that.’ The image of a sphinx is also revealed in The Second Coming “When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi / Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert / A shape with lion body and the head of a man,”. These lines are fascinating as it is states that “Spiritus Mundi” which literally translates to ‘World Spirit’, or the universal memory reveals to the narrator that a sphinx is in the desert. This is troubling to the narrator, as the sphinx (at least in masonic context) is the guardian of secrets. “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” are the most chilling lines of all, for the narrator who up to this point had been so sure thanks to the visions of “Spiritus Mundi” has been impeded of the final and most important part of the vision; what being will be born for the second coming?’ Whether Percy Shelley knew of Buddhist thought and belief, or if Yeats was familiar with Ouroboros or he came to his idea of “gyres” on his own, there is undoubtedly inspiration gleaned from both religious thought and the occult. Ozymandias seems less inspired by religious thought or the occult, yet it can be seen as such. The Second Coming is very much involved with occult symbolism and religion, and is, whether accidental or not, ouroboric by nature. Indeed, both poems can be seen from a religious and occult lens, and both could be claimed to be inspired by either. This inspiration has led to two fascinating pieces of art by two highly talented authors. Let us hope that these works last as long as their material form will allow, and that they are appreciated for years to come.’

Works Cited:

  1. Ramazani, Jahan. “William Butler Yeats” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. The Major Authors, 10th edition Volume 2. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. New York: Norton, 2019. 1127–30. Print.’
  2. Shelley, Percy. “Ozymandias” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. The Major Authors, 10th edition Volume 2. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. New York: Norton, 2019. 395. Print.’
  3. Yeats, William. “The Second Coming” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. The Major Authors, 10th edition Volume 2. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. New York: Norton, 2019. 1144. Print.’
  4. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Anicca.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 5 July 2011, https://www.britannica.com/topic/anicca.
01 February 2021

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