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From "Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

                                  Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

I do get that it says that the one who made the statue did a really good job of bringing the haughty Pharaoh's emotions to life; that a subordinate clause promptly follows (starting with a 'which') the subject of which are these "passions" again; and that the next line brings the focus back to the sculptor and reverses the power dynamics, describing the sculptor instead as the one who literally plays with these "passions" and in whose hands the preservation of the Pharaoh's memory and legacy solely lies.

What I don't get is the grammatical structure of the last quoted line.

Is the last line just an extension of the adjective phrase ("stamped on those [..]") in the previous line? If that is indeed the case, shouldn't there be a "by" in middle? "stamped on these lifeless things by the hand that [...]"? It'll be a case of omission then. But what for? Merely for the sake of brevity? For added effect? Or for more impact?

Or is it developing the "sculptor" clause at the beginning further, as in the sculptor consists of "the hand that mocked [...]"?

1 Answer 1

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The passions survive the hand that mocked [the passions] and the heart that fed [the passions].

That means that the passions (by being impressed on the lifeless statue) outlived both the sculptor's hand and the pharaoh's heart.

I don't know if this definition of survive is confusing you, or if it's just the convoluted syntax in general. From Oxford Learner's Dictionary:

survive: 1.2 [transitive] survive somebody/something: to live or exist longer than somebody/something
‘She survived her husband by ten years.’
‘He is survived by his wife and two sons.’

A couple more comments:

Mock here means either to mimic or to mimic derisively. Which of these meanings did Shelley intend? Or did he deliberately leave it ambiguous? I can't say for sure; he used it with both of these meanings in other poems.

There's an implied them after fed, and dropping it is one of the things that makes the grammar confusing. I'm not sure whether dropping this them is strictly grammatical, but poetic license excuses a lot.

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  • Ooh! Now I get it. Thanks a bunch. It was not "survive" that was the issue but the grammar of the entire thing. But now I get it. I haven't seen "survive" being used in this sense without so much as a preposition so that's also where I wasn't being able to connect the dots. Thanks for clearing this up for me again. Jun 16, 2018 at 7:18
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    That line has puzzled me for years. Now it finally makes sense.
    – Torisuda
    Jun 23, 2018 at 23:42
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    @Torisuda: I was also puzzled; I didn't figure the grammar out until years after I first read the poem.
    – Peter Shor
    Jun 24, 2018 at 15:33
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    It appears that Poetry Foundation's explanation of Ozymandias gets it wrong, too. (Maybe they're right and I'm wrong, but I don't think so.)
    – Peter Shor
    Jan 13, 2019 at 21:53
  • Really excellent answer. Wanted to add my two cents that to me, subjectively, a natural reading of “the heart that fed” is actually about the sculptor. The sculptor’s hand “mocked” the “snarling” pharaoh almost as if trivializing an apparently great person - the act of depiction can be diminishing, in one way or another. Why, is an open question, but to me it feels like the artist flaunts the apparent greatness of a person in a sense by recreating their figure; it is almost like their lifeless verisimilitudinous carbon copy has no power over the artist, who wields full power, as their creator.
    – Julius H.
    Jan 16, 2023 at 8:39

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