Symbolism in Ozymandias by P.B. Shelley, The Sick Rose by W. Blake, The Road Not Taken by R. Frost Essay

September 29, 2020 by Essay Writer


Form and figurative language form the backbone of poetry. Form refers to the physical structure of a poem while figurative language entails the use of various stylistic devices in a poem to express a certain meaning. Such styles include similes, metaphors, personification, symbolism, irony, among others. On the form, poems are structured into lines and stanzas.

Based on this, poems can be categorized as free verse or sonnets. This essay will focus on the analysis of form and symbolism in three selected poems. The poems are Ozymandias by P.B. Shelley, The Sick Rose by William Blake and The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost. Most importantly, the essay will draw a comparison of the use of symbolism in these three poems.

Use of Symbolism

The three poems rely heavily on the use of symbolism to put their messages across. In Ozymandias the poet analyses the issue of mortality through several powerful symbols. An “antique land” (Shelley, line 1) is the first symbol in this poem. It is central to the understanding of this poem since it is a pointer to its subject matter. An antique land is an area full of historical relics and artifacts.

It is, therefore, a symbol of long periods, long enough to create history. It creates the feeling that the reader is going to be treated to relics of the past – and that is exactly what happens. There is also the symbol of the broken statue rotting away in the desert. It is a great work of art, meant to last for an eternity but somehow, it has succumbed to the ravages of nature and is now hopelessly broken down.

The dilapidation of the mighty statue is symbolized by the “trunkless legs of stone” (Shelley, line 2) implying that the rest of the body has been wasted away. Also, there is a reference to a “shattered visage” (Shelley, line 3), which denotes a run-down head of the statue. Through the use of these symbols, Shelley intends to communicate to the audience the extent of the destruction of the statue.

The poem also seems to be asserting the fact that this is indeed a historical relic. The statue symbolizes a once great king, who, in his honor, constructs a statue of himself. The king may have intended to leave a lasting legacy behind. But after many years, the strong legacy is being eroded by either force of nature or men who are miffed by his misdeeds.

The expressions depicted on the shattered visage symbolize the passions and feelings that Ozymandias had when alive. The sculptor did his best to immortalize those feelings on stone, as it is illustrated thus: “Tell that its sculptor well those passions read” (Shelley, line 6). The visage has a “frown,” wrinkled lip” and a “sneer of cold command” (Shelley, line 4-5).

This suggests that King Ozymandias was far from being friendly. It depicts an authoritative personality, who does not brook discontent or alternative opinion. This may also symbolize the dictatorial tendencies harbored by the king during his heydays. The poet has employed symbolism to succinctly illustrate these feelings, and possibly show that Ozymandias’ reign may not have been popular.

This may drive readers to the conclusion that the great destruction of his statue could have been orchestrated by disenchanted subjects who are out to erase that part of their history from their lives. Unfortunately, the feelings survive because they have been “stamped” or cast in stone.

Through symbolism, the poet can juxtapose life and death. Reference to life is denoted by the speaker, who receives the tale of Ozymandias from a traveler from an antique land. Right after the representation of life, there is death. The broken down statue represents a mighty ruler who is no longer alive: “stamp’d on these lifeless things” (Shelley, line 7).

Death is also implied in the last line of the poem: “The lone and level sands stretch far away” (Shelley, line 14). There are no other forms of life around the statue. Symbolism is also rife in the poem The Sick Rose by William Blake. The rose is itself symbolic. Naturally, the rose is known for its alluring beauty and sweet scent, and also for its nasty nettle.

In this poem, however, the rose is sick: “O rose thou art sick” (Blake, stanza 1.1). It may symbolize the society, an individual or an item that is on the verge of destruction even though it seems to be doing fine. A society may experience success in various fields, particularly socially and economically, but its moral fiber could be decaying.

As such, this society would be considered “sick.” Blake seems to be driving a warning home: that we should not always judge things by their face value. This is a short poem, and the poet manages to convey a lot of meaning through the use of the symbol of a rose.

The cause of the sickness of the rose is also symbolic. It is an “invisible worm” (Blake, stanza 1.2) that flies in the night. The worm sneaks into the rose undetected and is only felt when the rose begins to wither and die. This connotes a destructive element that quietly makes its way into the being of a society or an individual and embarks on a slow, but sure process of destruction.

It could be a lifestyle, for example, alcohol consumption or smoking, which an individual may adopt without consideration of their harmful side effects. The effects often go undetected in their early stages and are only realized when it is too late.

The use of this symbol is deliberate. The poet might have been reacting to certain undesirable elements around him, which people were not noticing. It is possible he was referring to the effects of the industrial revolution in Europe, which brought about increased the production of goods and services but had a dehumanizing impact on the population.

The interaction between man and man was severed as the man was replaced by a machine. Through symbolism, Blake can introduce a new twist to the poem in the second stanza. The worm finds the “bed of crimson joy” (Blake, stanza 2.1-2) and launches its nefarious agenda from there. This indicates that the worm attacks that which is a perpetual source of joy to the rose.

This introduces the “dark secret love” (Blake, stanza 2.3), which the worm exploits to kill the rose. This implies that it is the intimate aspects of an individual or society’s life that destroys them. The rose is engaged in a dark secret love with the worm. It is dark because it is undesirable, against the norms of the society and so, it has to be secret.

Blake is emphasizing the fact that it is the things that people do secretly that finally destroy them. Essentially, through the use of symbolism, the poet can compress a lot of meaning into a short, powerful poem. The poem burns itself indelibly into the mind of the reader and can engage them long after they read it. Symbolism has also provided Blake with the opportunity to dress his rather serious poem appealingly.

The readers are likely to enjoy the poem without realizing at first that it is a scathing criticism of their secret lives. Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken, is also built on symbolism. The four-stanza poem depicts an individual at crossroads. The individual chooses the path that many people have avoided and lives to cherish this choice.

To begin with, the title is itself symbolic. It refers to an uncharted course of life in which one has no experience and information about because it has not been taken by others before. It implies venturing into areas that others have avoided for one reason or another.

It indicated independent decisions that keep one away of the clutches of mob psychology that sometimes orchestrate the downfall of some people. Through a symbolic title, Frost can create suspense and entice people to read the poem with the urge to find out more about the road less traveled.

The “road” in this poem is pregnant with meaning. It refers to the crucial decisions that shape one’s life. The road forks out into two and the speaker has to decide which one to follow. Looking as far ahead into each branch has little effect; thus, the speaker is confined to their wits to inform their decisions:

And I looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth (Frost, stanza 1.3-4)

Each path disappears into the undergrowth implying that each choice is unfamiliar to the speaker and, therefore, might be tempted to make a random pick. However, after some soul-searching, the speaker decides not to follow the crowd. It is interesting to note that although the speaker does not regret the choice he made, he still wonders what could have been the outcome of taking on the road that others had already traveled on.

Another powerful symbol lies in “knowing how way leads on to way” (Frost, stanza 3.4). The speaker is well aware that the outcome of the decision made cannot be reversed: “I doubted if I should ever come back” (Frost, stanza 3.5). This is because the all-determining decision will have to be sustained by other decisions in the course of one’s life.

Frost has effectively employed symbolism to advance the subject matter of the poem. It is both a piece of advice and a warning. The poet advises people to explore areas hither to unexploited before and to adopt fresh approaches and outlooks in life.

As a warning, Frost prevails upon individuals to refrain from the mob mentality or doing things because others are doing the same. People should, therefore, be independent when making decisions or choices that reflect on their lives.


The three poets have employed symbolism to a greater extent to enhance meaning. Very powerful messages are put across to readers via memorable symbols, which are largely familiar, e.g., roads, rose, and statue. Symbolism has thus been used as a tool to lengthen the plot of the poems.

It has also been used aesthetically, as can be seen from the three poems. The various symbols make the poems interesting and attractive to read. Symbolism is, therefore, one of the most important aspects of figurative language heavily used in poetry.

Works cited

Blake, William. The Sick Rose., n.d. Web. November 23rd, 2011. <>.

Frost, Robert. The Road Not Taken., n.d. Web. November 23rd, 2011. <>.

Shelley, Percy P. Ozymandias., n.d. Web. November 23rd, 2011. <>.

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