Last Updated September 6, 2023.
“The Triumph of Life” is a fragmentary poem by the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Written in Italy in 1852, it draws inspiration from Dante’s Inferno and Petrarch’s Trionfi. The poem was never finished, however, as Shelley died before he was able to complete it.
In the first part of the poem, the speaker describes the morning, how the sun rises and drives the darkness away from the earth. He describes the mountains as flaming crimson altars that reflect the sunlight; the ocean also catches the light, and the flowers begin to open up and give off their scent. Land, ocean, and sky all now begin to awaken and open, but the speaker’s own thoughts “must remain untold.” He says that he was unable to sleep last night, but a “strange trance” came over him, though he was still aware of the dawn when it came. He had a vision.
In the vision, he imagines he sits near a busy road, and people are hurrying back and forth, though no one seems to know where they are going, where they have come from, or why they are even walking there. Of all ages and types, the people walk, some away from what they fear and others toward the fears of another, casting shadows. The crowds grow wilder, and a “cold glare” obscures the sunlight.
A chariot arrives, bearing a Janus-faced figure that wears a hood and cape. He wears a blindfold over his eyes, and the chariot swerves and jerks; the crowd seems to rejoice at the sight of him, and many of the people become bound, yoked, to the chariot. It seems to result in some kind of pleasurable agony for them. Soon, however, the ligatures that bind them snap, and they seem now sunk and corrupted. The speaker calls it a “sad pageantry,” and he wonders about the identity of the person in the chariot.
The driver’s eyes are now only holes, and he is quite “grim.” Soon, the remains of Rousseau, an Enlightenment philosopher whose ideas helped influence the French Revolution, emerges to say that the driver is “Life” and that the people chained to the chariot are those who were considered wise, those who have not been forgotten by time but who, nevertheless, have failed to arrive at truth. The speaker describes how “power & will” seem to “rule our mortal day” and wonders why “God made irreconcilable / Good & the means of good.” Rousseau describes a number of famous individuals, including Napoleon, Plato, Francis Bacon, Voltaire, Catherine the Great, Alexander the Great, and the like.
Soon, Rousseau begins to tell his own story, and the speaker has a second vision. When the chariot returns with all the people bound to it, Rousseau begins to wane. The people, who the speaker calls “Phantoms” now, seem to be released from the chariot. Kings and popes then “[laugh] from their dead eyes” because they are able to reassume their power and control. There is no hope but only desire. The chariot rolls away, and it is not clear whether there is any possibility of happiness.