In Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem "The Triumph of Life," what is the significance of the following lines: "The world can hear not the sweet notes that move / The sphere whose light is melody to lovers"?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “The Triumph of Life,” a youth observes a ghostly procession of various specimens of humanity. He asks the spirit of Jean Jacques Rousseau to explain the procession to him.  Rousseau himself at one point alludes to Dante’s poem The Divine Comedy, paraphrasing part of the meaning of that poem by asserting that

“The world can hear not the sweet notes that move

The sphere whose light is melody to lovers --  . . .” (478-79)

The Norton Anthology of English Poetry (6th edition) explains the reference to “The sphere” as follows: “The third sphere of the planet Venus (Love), in Dante’s Ptolemaic universe.”

Essentially, Shelley’s lines suggest that true love is lofty, transcendent, elevated, and sublime. People who are caught up in the world – whose minds are fixated on material things and possessions – cannot hear the pleasing, heavenly music of love, which is described as a kind of light.

Reactions to Shelley’s lines have been various and have included the following:

  • Evelyn Underhill saw the lines as evidence of Shelley’s mysticism.
  • Edward Duffy read the lines as evidence of the beauty of love but also of much of mankind’s inability to appreciate or even perceive that beauty.
  • David Wallace and many others interpreted the lines as evidence of Shelley’s very strong interest in Dante.
  • Carleton W. Stanley saw the lines as evidence of Shelley’s debt to Plato and also of Shelley’s sympathy with Platonic thinking.
  • Glenn O’Malley discussed the lines in connection with a broader discussion of Shelley and synaesthesia (for example, the ability to “hear” light or “see” music).
  • Other such comments can be found in this Google Books link:

 

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