Last Updated September 6, 2023.
There is a poetic justice about Shelley’s having left “The Triumph of Life” incomplete at his death. The content of the poem is like an unfinished puzzle in which Shelley poses questions about the deepest issues of the universe and provides only partial answers.
The poem is narrated as a dreamlike vision by a speaker who finds himself waking upon a “slope of lawn” where he sees a great stream of people rushing forth, driven relentlessly upon a path by a chariot with a Janus-faced figure at the reins. The scene is horrible:
So ill was the car guided, but it past
With solemn speed majestically on. . . .
The crowd gave way, & I arose aghast,
Or seemed to rise, so mighty was the trance,
And saw like clouds upon the thunder blast
The million with fierce song and maniac dance
Raging around. . . .
It is “Life” driving these masses headlong before it. The scene remains a mystery until the speaker encounters the spirit of Rousseau, who then proceeds to recount his own spiritual journey and to give some explanation as to what the scene before them represents.
“The Triumph of Life” is an allegorical dream about the search for meaning and fulfillment. The awful spectacle of people rushing frantically represents Earth’s billions who have been defeated and who are the victims of life. This includes a path-breaker like Rousseau and numerous other figures out of history whose spirits appear in sad defeat:
. . . “Dost thou behold,”
Said then my guide, “those spoilers spoiled, Voltaire,
“Frederic, & Kant, Catherine, & Leopold,
Chained hoary anarch, demagogue & sage
Whose name the fresh world thinks already old—
“For in the battle Life & they did wage
She remained conqueror. . . .
The speaker asks of his guide, Rousseau, where he came from and where he is going, and the answer is then another vision of a kind of paradise, “a valley of perpetual dream” where he is urged to drink from what, arguably, is the fountain of knowledge. The result is that a stream of humanity is revealed; all of it, however, is seemingly plunged into a kind of meaningless futility and despair:
Mask after mask fell from the countenance
And form of all, and long before the day
“Was old, the joy which waked like Heaven’s glance
The sleepers in the oblivious valley, died,
And some grew weary of the ghastly dance
“And fell, as I have fallen by the way side. . . .
The poem is written in the terza rima form employed by Dante (to whom Shelley alludes in the poem), and the device of having Rousseau as the speaker’s guide simulates that of Dante meeting Virgil in Inferno. It is also worth noting that much of Shelley’s imagery derives from the Bible, especially from Revelation, the last book of the New Testament. Though Shelley was a freethinker, the terrifying, apocalyptic scenes he describes, the trancelike visions, and the speaker being granted access to some inner realm of knowledge are all related to end-times Christian thought.
Much of Shelley’s concern in “The Triumph of Life” is to create a sound-picture, a wealth of beautiful and striking words which one can value as a kind of music, apart from their meaning. The poem can also be seen as a self-conscious valedictory. Shelley knew that he was going to die young. In his “Ode to the West Wind,” he refers to his own “leaves” as falling like those of the autumn forest. “The Triumph of Life” nonetheless shows how much more he would have had to offer had he lived beyond his thirty years.