BOTH POEMS 'STORM ON THE ISLAND' AND 'OZYMANDIAS' EXPLORE THE THEME OF NATURE. COMPARE HOW THE POETS PRESENT THIS THEME.

The speakers in ‘Storm on the Island’ and Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ both show respect for nature as a mighty force which has the potential to overpower humans.  Heaney establishes this very clearly in the opening lines by describing the measures taken by the islanders to withstand the storm. The poem begins ‘We are prepared’; this immediately emphasises the strength of the storm and the regularity with which the storm batters the island. It is an exciting opening, which could even suggest that the onset of the storm is experienced as thrilling by the islanders. The use of alliteration when he describes “squat”, “sink”, “slate” and “rock” and “roof” creates a sense of solidness and stability to the lines, imitating the solidness of the defences against the weather that the islanders have constructed.  Shelley’s speaker contrasts the permanence of nature with the weakness of man by placing the destroyed statue of Ozymandias in the ‘desert’. The description of the remains of the statue as “two trunkless legs of stone / Stand” is quite humorous, because the statue is without either heart or head and has been reduced to two useless limbs which still “stand” proudly. The word “desert” indicates that the surroundings of the statue are a large, barren wasteland, showing that nature is able to overcome and outlive man.

Heaney’s speaker demonstrates a belief that the Earth itself has a cruel will of its own – not displayed by Shelley’s speaker - by personifying nature (“The wizened earth has never troubled us / With hay”). The word “wizened” suggests that the earth is like an old, wrinkled Mother Earth. The use of enjambment initially tricks the reader into thinking the speaker is saying the Earth is no ‘trouble’, before it becomes clear that the Earth is barren. Perhaps this suggests that he thinks Mother Earth has a malicious sense of humour. Elsewhere his use of enjambment shocks the reader and suggests that nature is unpredictable and cannot be contained in the poem. For example, in the phrase “Which might prove company when it blows full / Blast”, the word ‘blast’ does not fit onto a single line and explodes violently at the beginning of the next one.  Shelley, by contrast, emphasises the potential for cruelty in humans through his depiction of Ozymandias’s statue, showing that humans in the main are responsible for their own demise. The king’s permanently distorted facial features – his “wrinkled lip” and his “sneer of cold command” – indicate that his unkindness is unnatural. He writes that these have been “stamped” on by the sculptor, which suggests that the sculptor has put them there deliberately to symbolise the king’s cruel character. The only two hints that nature itself can be cruel appears in references to the statue first as “half sunk” in sand, as though the sand has consumed the statue, and later as a “colossal wreck”, a metaphor which compares the isolated statue in the desert to an isolated ship destroyed by the sea.

By choosing to write ‘Ozymandias’ in the form of a sonnet, which is a form that has been used by lots of poets including Shakespeare to discuss moral themes, Shelley is suggesting that his poem should be read as a lesson for the reader. The poem demonstrates that the greatness of nature should remind us about the folly of pride and ambition, a common theme in Romantic poetry. Contemporary readers are likely to have interpreted the poem in this way, because Shelley, writing in the 1810s and 20s, was famously a supporter of the French Revolution in the late 17thcentury during which King Louis, famously greedy and prone to spending lots of money, was overthrown. By beginning his poem “I met a traveller from an antique land who said”, the speaker is suggesting that the poem contains a piece of important wisdom about life, because ‘travellers’ are thought of as wise people who have had lots of varied experiences. He points out at the end of the poem that the “lone and level sands stretch far away” in contrast to the “wreck” of the statue to signal that the desert is timeless and that nature can outlast man’s achievements. 

Heaney, by contrast, constructs his poem to show that the speaker’s attitude to nature is based on unique and very personal experiences of the storm. The island is unusually harsh, emphasised by Heaney’s continued use of negative words such as as ‘no’ and ‘nor’ (“there are no stacks / Or stooks” and “nor are there trees”). The speaker indicates that his experience is unique because it does not match what the reader, whom he refers to directly, would expect: by saying “so as you can see” the speaker is trying to help the reader to empathise with him. The speaker is clearly weary of the storm and experiences the returning storms as ongoing and relentless. By including unusually conversational phrases in his poem (“you know what I mean” and “You might think… But no”), Heaney emphasises that the speaker is tired and frustrated in ways that the reader could understand. Heaney uses repetition, saying that the trees and, later, the sea do not provide any “company”, to indicate that the speaker keeps seeking some comfort and finding none. The middle line of the poem “So that you can listen to the thing you fear” is echoed in the final line “Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear”, which demonstrates that the speaker hasn’t moved on from an overwhelming experience of ‘fear’ induced by the terrible weather. 

Through his use of war imagery at the end of the poem, “the wind dives / And strafes invisibly”, “Space is salvo” and “bombarded”, Heaney is showing that being in a storm is like being under fire during conflict. As a Northern Irish writer who composed the poem in the 1960s, Heaney would have seen and experienced the results of growing tensions between Protestants and Catholics. By setting the poem on an unnamed ‘island’, which is almost a homophone for ‘Ireland’, this could indicate that the ongoing storm is a metaphor for this ongoing conflict, and that the very weary attitude of the speaker towards nature could represent the unique suffering experienced by the Irish who were caught up in religious unrest at the time Heaney was writing. 

Heaney ends the poem using the oxymoron “huge nothing” to describe the storm, which illustrates that for the speaker nature remains mysterious and complex. The speaker in Heaney’s poem calls the experience “strange” which is ambiguous; it could mean unusual, or could suggest that the line is meant to be understood ironically, so the storm is far from “nothing” to the speaker, though others might not give his suffering much thought.  This is very unlike Shelley’s presentation of nature as strong and eternal in ‘Ozymandias’; nature leaves the statue of the King “boundless and bare”, the word “bare” showing that the statue is completely destroyed. 

BACK