The Triumph of Life Themes
by Percy Bysshe Shelley

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Perhaps the most haunting figure of The Triumph of Life is the deformed and eyeless Rousseau, who guides the poet through Life’s hellish pageant. To Shelley, Rousseau was a strange, contradictory person, capable, through his political writings, of considerable mischief, but also the author of the idealistic Julie: Ou, La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761; The New Héloïse), a story of a passion that becomes transformed into a noble and chaste love. It was difficult for Shelley, and many of his contemporaries, to reconcile the high-minded writer of Julie with the often immoral figure of Rousseau’s Les Confessions de J.-J. Rousseau (1782, 1789; The Confessions of J.-J. Rousseau, 1783-1790); as a result, the character of Rousseau in The Triumph of Life is a complex mixture of idealism and corruption.

Rousseau is initially presented as a rather repellent creature: He has “thin discoloured hair” and tries to hide holes which “Were or had been eyes.” Thus one of the ironies of The Triumph of Life is that the poet’s guide is blind—as blind, perhaps, as the four-faced charioteer who guides Life’s car so badly. Rousseau indicates that his state on earth is partly to blame for his decay: “if the spark with which Heaven lit [his] spirit/ Earth had with purer nutriment supplied,” Rousseau argues, he would not have fallen into his final state of corruption. Moreover, even if he has been “extinguished,” his spark has given rise to “A thousand beacons,” including the torch lit by the French Revolution. Later in the poem, however, Rousseau recognizes that his “words were seeds of misery” and that he has created “a world of agony”—some of the beacons he inspired caused suffering as well as enlightenment. Rousseau also suggests that his fall could be explained by his innate self-destructiveness: Rather than being conquered by Life, he was overcome by his “own heart.” After the shape all light disappears, Rousseau willfully plunges into Life’s pageant, bearing his “bosom to the clime/ Of that cold light.” Thus Rousseau becomes an object lesson—endowed by Heaven with a Promethean spark, he fell at least in part because he could not discipline his heart and create works that helped better humanity’s condition.

In some ways Rousseau embodies the problem that he is helping the poet understand, “why God made irreconcilable/ Good and the means of good.” As a would-be benefactor of humankind, Rousseau certainly intended to do good, but he lacked either the power or the will to accomplish his goals. His search for knowledge from the shape all light in his allegorical narrative leads to his brain becoming like sand, and when Life comes he perversely bears his bosom...

(The entire section is 689 words.)