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Lines 469-80 of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “The Triumph of Life” are particularly important, because these lines allude to the great Italian poet Dante. Dante, many centuries earlier, had written The Divine Comedy, a precursor of Shelley’s poem not only in its use of terza rime (consisting of three-line stanzas rhyming aba, bcb, cdc, and so on) but also in many of its themes. The relevant passage reads as follows:
469 "Before the chariot had begun to climb
470 The opposing steep of that mysterious dell,
471 Behold a wonder worthy of the rhyme
472 "Of him whom from the lowest depths of Hell
473 Through every Paradise & through all glory
474 Love led serene, & who returned to tell
475 "In words of hate & awe the wondrous story
476 How all things are transfigured, except Love;
477 For deaf as is a sea which wrath makes hoary
478 "The world can hear not the sweet notes that move
479 The sphere whose light is melody to lovers---
480 A wonder worthy of his rhyme----
Lines 472-74 refer to Dante being led through the inferno (Hell), then through Purgatory, and finally into Paradise. Lines 474-80 explain that everything except Love is mutable (“all things are transfigured”). Humans can no longer hear the “music of the spheres” associated with Love. Such music was “worthy of [Dante’s] rhyme.
Shelley thus associates himself with his great medieval predecessor. He hopes to produce a poem as notable as Dante’s famous epic. Dante is one of several important precursors whose influence on the poem is obvious. Others include Petrarch, Milton, Wordsworth, Lucretius, and Plato (see the introduction to the poem in the Norton edition of Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, edited by Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat). Jean Jacques Rousseau is an actual figure in the poem, performing the same role for Shelley’s speaker that the Roman poet Virgil performed for Dante during the latter’s journey through the Inferno.
It was typical of epic poets to associate themselves with their great predecessors. Thus Virgil echoed Homer; Dante echoed Virgil; Spenser echoed Virgil and numerous Italians who were influenced by Virgil; and Milton echoed Homer, Virgil, Dante, Spenser, and numerous other writers besides. Shelley, then, is following in a long and lofty tradition of poets alluding to previous masters of the art.
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