The Poem

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.)

Forms and Devices

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....

(The entire section is 670 words.)