If like me, you have been listening to Bryan Cranston recite Ozymandias over and over all week long (if you haven’t, now’s your chance!), the following thoughts have probably crossed your mind:
- August 11 can’t come soon enough.
- Percy “Bitch” Shelley is the most badass of poets.
- Wait, what? “The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed?” What does that mean? Whose hand? What heart?
If you listen to the way Cranston reads that line, he doesn’t seem too sure himself what do with it, other than “mocked” is a nice emotional word so let’s break it extra bad on that one.
But fear not, dear readers. Amos Johannes Hunt, Ph.D.c., is on the scene. I won’t allow this excellent poem not to make sense.
The problem actually starts a few lines back, with the word “survive.” Cranston, like everyone else I’ve ever heard reading the poem, seems to take it as the end of the thought. (For the grammatically initiated, he’s reading it as an intransitive verb, with no object). It just means “live on.” Which is fine, if you ignore the line we’re trying to explain. It doesn’t attach to anything else in the sentence, which really ended at “survive.”
No, I won’t permit that. Let’s reconsider. What if the word “survive” is transitive, meaning “live longer than,” the way you read it in obituaries? John Q. Corpse is survived by his two sons. Now we’re waiting to hear what the passions outlived. We don’t get it right away, because Shelley throws in another thought first (a participial phrase): “stamped on these lifeless things.” Let’s bracket that out and see where it leaves us. The passions of Ozymandias “yet survive [outlive] the hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.”
Now which hand do Ozymandias’s passions survive, and which heart? “The hand that mocked them” is the sculptor’s. Sorry, “mocked” just means “represented” here. Not every line has to be a bitter, ironic take-down okay? “The heart that fed” isn’t so obvious, because Shelley is indulging in a little Latinate syntax here. Again, it looks like the thought is over. The heart fed. Like it was eating something. But we’re supposed to understand that it fed (“gave sustenance to,” not “ate”) the same passions that the sculptor’s hand mocked. So it’s Ozymandias’s heart.
All right now get ready for this poem to get even a little more awesome. It’s not just about the fall of empires. It’s about the fall of the poet, too. The hand of the sculptor gets linked with the heart of the emperor. It’s as though Shelley were saying: an empire won’t save you; a sculpture won’t save you; even writing “Ozymandias” won’t save you. It’s as though he knew his poem was going to be repeated around the world forever, and he just wanted to remind us that he still had to die anyway.
When artists represent the futility of ambition, we sometimes forget that poetic ambition has the same limitations as any other.