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Last Updated on June 15, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 681

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.

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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 speaker ends by posing the question, “Then, what is life?” And there is no answer given.

The meaning of the poem itself is so open to interpretation that readers can only guess what the ultimate message is, but one could argue that Shelley is basically saying that no one has ever grasped what the world is all about, what the actual source of happiness and fulfillment is, and that all who have attempted this have essentially been defeated.

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.

The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 632

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Triumph of Life is a long fragment of 547 lines (ending abruptly in the middle of line 548) written in terza rima, an interlocking three-line stanza form employed by Dante and Petrarch. The poem’s title is taken from Petrarch, who wrote a series of Triumphs, or Trionfi (1470), each one presenting the triumph of an allegorical figure. For example, Petrarch’s Triumphus Amoris celebrates the triumph of love. In Shelley’s poem, Life is the triumphant figure, but its “triumph” is far from positive.

The poem begins with a description of the sun rising and nature awakening. The recumbent speaker of the poem, whose “thoughts must remain untold,” is turned away from the dawn. As the sun rises behind him, the poet falls into a trance and “a Vision [is] rolled” on his passive brain. In his “waking dream,” he finds himself sitting “beside a public way” and watching multitudes of confused people going past like gnats or fallen leaves. A chariot appears bearing a deformed “Shape”; the chariot is driven by a four-faced charioteer who has all of his eyes banded. The “Shape” presides over a triumphal pageant which has enslaved everyone except “the sacred few.” This free group is not specified, although Socrates and Jesus (“they of Athens and Jerusalem”) are said to be in it.

Dismayed by the sight of the frenetic and helpless captives following the chariot, the poet wonders aloud about the Shape and the pageant. His questions are answered by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), a deformed figure who has holes for eyes. As Vergil guides Dante through the Inferno, Rousseau, whose works inspired many of the Romantics, interprets for the poet Life’s hellish triumph. It is Life, Rousseau explains, who leads the procession; among his prisoners are bishops, warriors, kings, philosophers, Napoleon, Voltaire, Frederick the Great, Immanuel Kant, Catherine the Great, and Leopold II. According to Rousseau, even Plato was conquered by Life through his love for a young man, and Aristotle fell because of his association with Alexander the Great. The poet asks Rousseau to explain where Rousseau came from, where he is going, and how and why his journey began. Although Rousseau cannot answer all these questions, he tells his own story in the hope that both he and the poet will learn from his experience.

Rousseau’s narrative begins with Rousseau asleep in a cavern under a mountain. Through this cavern runs a rivulet whose waters (like those of the river Lethe) induce forgetfulness, so Rousseau has no memory of his life before awakening. As the day progresses, Rousseau rises and sees “A shape all light”—the reflection of the sun in the water of a well. This female shape bears a crystal glass full of the drug nepenthe and her passage through nature suggests “silver music.” The shape is associated with nature and represents natural beauty, but her feet blot out the thoughts of those who gaze upon them, an action that seems oppressive rather than inspirational.

Rousseau asks this shape essentially the same questions the poet had asked him: “Shew when I came, and where I am, and why.” Instead of answering him, the shape offers him a drink from her cup of nepenthe, and Rousseau’s “brain [becomes] as sand.” After his lips touch the cup, Rousseau’s vision of the “shape all light” is abruptly replaced by the bright, glaring vision of the deformed shape of Life and his triumph. The “shape all light” fades into a dim, glimmering presence. Much of the remainder of the poem is devoted to Rousseau’s description of Life’s pageant, in which the dancers are phantoms and “dim forms.” The fragment ends with the poet’s question, “Then, what is Life?,” and Rousseau’s incomplete response to that question.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 670

Much of the ambiguity of The Triumph of Life stems from the fact that it is a fragment. Some critics suggest that it would have ended positively if Shelley had lived, or that it would have been followed (in the Petrarchan manner) by another poem in which Life would be triumphed over (perhaps by Love). Other students of the poem have argued that the conclusion would have confirmed its pessimism, or that Shelley would have been unwilling or unable to finish the poem. Shelley’s untimely death by drowning make all such theories speculative—readers of the poem can never know what changes Shelley may have intended. The fact that Shelley left the poem in manuscript, with many revisions (and drawings of sailboats), has also created problems for editors of the poem, who must interpret lines which are often close to scribbles.

The structure of The Triumph of Life is repetitive: The poet’s visionary experience is basically repeated in Rousseau’s narrative. At the beginning of the poem the poet faces the starlit night, which is soon obscured by the sun. The next vision that comes is the “cold glare” of Life’s triumph which, in turn, overcomes the sunlight. Similarly, Rousseau awakes in the shadows of a cave, but soon the “gentle trace/ Of light” is obscured by the “Sun’s image radiantly intense.” As was the sunlight of the poet’s narrative, the “shape all light” of Rousseau’s story is soon erased by the harsh light of Life. Moreover, in both sections of the poem key questions are asked: The poet wants to know where Rousseau came from, where he is going, and why and how his journey began. Rousseau queries the shape all light in the same manner: “Shew whence I came, and where I am, and why.” Rather than progressing toward an answer, the poem seems to repeat itself, and the reader is left to wonder if any resolution would have been possible, even if Shelley had lived to “complete” the work. Characteristically, the poem ends with the poet asking yet another question, to which Rousseau only begins to respond: “Then, what is Life?”

The allegorical nature of The Triumph of Life adds to its complexity. The shape all light in particular has been interpreted in a variety of ways. Her associations with nature and beauty suggest her potential to inspire, but her effect on Rousseau is to turn his brain into half-erased sand and introduce the glaring vision of Life. Is she, then, a muse or a sinister seductress? In contrast, the allegorical figure of Life is much less ambiguous, although the fact that the poet must ask about Life at the end of the fragment suggests that this abstract personification is not easily defined. Life’s deformity and the deforming effect of his cold light are, however, clearly negative, and Life’s charioteer, who is four-faced but blinded, guides the car badly. Moreover, the insane dance of the followers of Life’s chariot, which recalls the mad festivities of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Walpurgisnacht, is shown to be compulsive, tragic, and humiliating. Thus the allegory presented in the fragment, in which Life is a deforming force which destroys as it disfigures, portrays the human will as weak and ultimately helpless, for only the “sacred few” can escape Life’s complete domination.

In order to emphasize human frailty, Shelley uses historical figures, including men who wielded considerable power in their lives. Napoleon, who was once so powerful that his “grasp had left the giant world so weak,” follows Life’s chariot tamely, his “hands crost on his chain.” Even “The Wise,/ The great, the unforgotten” have been subdued, for “their might/ Could not repress the mutiny within.” Life’s power dominates everyone, The Triumph of Life suggests, except for Socrates and Jesus (“they of Athens and Jerusalem”), who escaped Life through execution. The poem uses allegory and historical personages in order to suggest that only superhuman or transcendent beings can resist Life.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 689

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 to Life’s deforming light. To resist Life, one would need to have the self-discipline of a Jesus or Socrates, who stoically accepted death. To Shelley, however, Rousseau was ultimately a disappointment. The transcendent mind that created Julie was also capable of the follies of the Confessions and the political works that led to the destructive and futile violence of the French Revolution. Thus in the poem Rousseau is presented as eyeless, deformed, and “extinguished.”

Although one must always allow for the fact that Shelley may have intended to end The Triumph of Life in a positive way, it is difficult to determine how he would have dispelled the pessimism that pervades the fragment he left. Rousseau offers the poet knowledge, but this knowledge does not bring the poet peace of mind. The poet’s question at the end of the poem, “Then, what is Life?,” suggests that the poet has learned very little of importance. The very search for knowledge seems futile and even destructive. Certainly, Rousseau’s declaration to the poet does not seem very encouraging: “If thirst for knowledge doth not thus abate,/ Follow it even to the night, but I/ Am weary.” In this complex and ambiguous poem little can be known by either the poet or by Rousseau. Both move from one “waking dream” to another, and the reader is left with a vision of Life that appears both hellish and irresistible.

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