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.

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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.


(The entire section contains 1302 words.)

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