Please explain P.B. Shelley's "The Triumph of Life," specifically lines 206-310. Please explain lines in simple English with regard to Shelley's references to the special character of Rousseau.
[eNotes editors are only permitted to answer one question per posting. Additional questions should be posted separately.]
P.B. Shelley's "Triumph of Life," speaks a great deal about Rousseau, the famous philosopher and writer.
Research shows that Rousseau was not a contemporary of Shelley, but Shelley felt the impact of Rousseau's philosophies and their impact on important "leaders" of the time. The sense is that Rousseau tried to attain impossible ideals, but died, not having found that for which he was searching.
...Before thy memory
I feared, loved, hated, suffered, did, and died, 200
And if the spark with which Heaven lit my spirit
Earth had with purer nutriment supplied
Corruption would not now thus much inherit
Of what was once Rousseau—nor this disguise
Stain that within which still disdains to wear it.— 205
If I have been extinguished, yet there rise
A thousand beacons from the spark I bore.
Rousseau's writings had greatly affected many searching for the means and passion to move their ideologies, politics, etc., forward. The use of "beacons" indicates illumination in the darkness in terms of knowledge, though Shelley is not a supporter of Rousseau.
Of those influenced by his works were the forces behind the French Revolution, and Napoleon Bonaparte is mentioned in the following:
The Child of a fierce hour; he sought to win
The world, and lost all it did contain Of greatness, in its hope destroyed;
"Mighty captives" of Rousseau's philosophy included:
Mitres and helms and crowns, or wreathes of light...
These indicate heads of the church, soldiers, and heads of state (i.e., kings); "wreathes of light" refer to intellectuals.
The following passage speaks to Rousseau's inability to reach the ideals he labored towards ("I" being Rousseau), defeated even unto death:
For in the battle Life and they did wage
She remained conqueror—I was overcome 240
By my own heart alone, which neither age
Nor tears nor infamy nor now the tomb
Could temper to its object.
Again, in lines 278-279, Rousseau is mentioned: regarding what he has suffered—he wrote not just about what others had suffered, but what he personally suffered:
I Have suffered what I wrote, or viler pain!
In lines 282-284, Rousseau identifies villains:
And so my words were seeds of misery— 280
Even as the deeds of others.—'Not as theirs,'
I said—he pointed to a company 282
In which I recognized amid the heirs
Of Cæsar’s crime from him to Constantine.
Rousseau admits to seeds of misery he wrought, but points to the evil deeds of others:
[...not the seeds of such misery as were the deeds of those men. “Theirs” refers to the evil “company,” to whom Rousseau has just pointed (line 282)]
Rousseau is questioned:
'Whence camest thou and whither goest thou?
How did thy course begin,' I said, 'and why?'
Throughout this work, the writer has posed several questions for Rousseau, who has tried to answer them "allegorically." However, Rousseau admits that he does not have the full knowledge necessary to fully answer those questions, such as those listed above.
It would seem that the author has many queries for Rousseau, in trying to understand how this man could have provided the philosophical theories to "mislead" so many. Shelley sees the aftermath and wonders at how far-reaching Rousseau's ideals were, and how they have changed humanity on such a large scale.