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...

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