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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “The Triumph of Life” is triumphant, at the very least in the scope of its ambition; in this poem, Shelley attempts to match and surpass the Bible, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Other important sources for this tour de force include such non-epic works as Petrarch’s Trionfi. In keeping with its colossal scope and prestigious antecedents, Shelley’s poem begins with a creation narrative, which pointedly alludes to and conflicts with the creation narrative found in the first book of the Hebrew Bible. Shelley takes as a starting point the sun springing forth from some mysterious point of origin, resulting in the “birth of light.” Note that there is no creator God and no divine fiat to let there be light. Here, light is born of its own accord, as it were, unmediated by divine foresight, plan, or execution. Once light has been born, creation swiftly unfolds, apparently also of its own accord:

And in succession due, did Continent,

Isle, Ocean, & all things that in them wear

The form & character of mortal mould

Rise as the Sun their father rose, to bear

Their portion of the toil which he of old

Took as his own & then imposed on them

In this passage, the theology of the poem gradually shifts; now the Sun is revealed to be a father-god, along whom “his” children rise up with him. The “Sun their father,” however, is not a father in the sense of having brought his progeny into being. In just what sense, then, the sun is a parent is not clear.

Shelley adds another layer to his idiosyncratic creation narrative. In this scenario, all things in the world come into being “to bear / Their portion of the toil which he of old / Took as his own.” Elements of ancient Near Eastern geogeny (an account of the origin of the earth) and theogony (an account of the the origin of the gods) come into play. The sun is now represented as a figure who at one point in the unspecified past assumed a terrible burden (apparently, some portion of cosmic toil). Now, he passes on the workload to the world—a transmission of responsibility that assumes the character of an imposition. Note that the world must not work because of sin but because of an ostensibly unjust parent. Into this odd scenario comes the voice of an “I” who has a secret that he cannot disclose in the form of “thoughts which must remain untold”:

But I, whom thoughts which must remain untold

Had kept as wakeful as the stars that gem

The cone of night, now they were laid asleep,

Stretched my faint limbs beneath the hoary stem

Which an old chestnut flung athwart the steep

Of a green Apennine: before me fled

The night; behind me rose the day; the Deep

Was at my feet, & Heaven above my head

When a strange trance over my fancy grew

Which was not slumber

In this passage, which is reminiscent of pastoral and Romantic poetry, a brooding speaker who cannot sleep because of some secret lies down beneath a tree on a mountain and falls into a reverie. This reverie is not itself sleep but rather “a strange trance.” Here, Shelley is assembling his props and setting the stage for a visionary experience.

Here, the most obvious antecedent is Dante, but whereas in Inferno Dante starts out “lost” in the woods in midlife before having his visionary journey, Shelley’s speaker is not lost at all; he is just preoccupied. This is a modern...

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aspect of the poem, which is much concerned with the distractions and preoccupations of modern existence.

The poem progresses, via a disquieting urban vision of people who are cut off from nature, in a dialogue with the spirit of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (who assumes the role of guide and teacher as Virgil did for Dante). Shelley’s speaker wants to know the origin of things, and he asks the spirit of Rousseau for a far-ranging explanation of how and why it is that things are as they are.

“Whence camest thou & whither goest thou?

How did thy course begin,” I said, “& why?

“Mine eyes are sick of this perpetual flow

Of people, & my heart of one sad thought.—

Speak.”—“Whence I came, partly I seem to know,

“And how & by what paths I have been brought

To this dread pass, methinks even thou mayst guess;

Why this should be my mind can compass not;

“Whither the conqueror hurries me still less.

But follow thou, & from spectator turn

Actor or victim in this wretchedness,

“And what thou wouldst be taught I then may learn

From thee.—Now listen . . .”

In this passage, we get a sense of Shelley’s poetic pedagogy. The reader is in the place of the poem’s speaker, who is sick of things in general and other human beings in particular (“this perpetual flow / of people”) and who wants an explanation of what it is all about. We see here that Shelley is attempting to suggest that learners are teachers as well (“what thou woulds’t be taught I may then learn”).