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...
(The entire section is 632 words.)