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Last Updated September 6, 2023.


The pessimism of “The Triumph of Life” is, admittedly, is a paradox within Shelley’s oeuvre, at least when looked at in the context of his most famous pieces, such as “Ode to the West Wind,” which seem buoyant and uplifting. The dreamlike, apocalyptic vision the speaker recounts in “The Triumph of Life” is one in which a huge crowd of humanity are driven headlong on what seems a path of futility and destruction. The speaker sees his idol, Rousseau, appear as a pitiful specter. A chariot before which the multitudes are fleeing is driven by a horrific Janus-faced figure, who, we are told, is “Life.” The tone of the poem, typically for Shelley, incorporates luxurious diction and imagery, but it all seems employed to further a frightening vision of a world of chaos and defeat.

We are given a list of famous people from modern and ancient history: Plato, Aristotle, and Alexander, Voltaire, Kant, Frederick the Great, Napoleon, and others. Shelley’s implication may be that all of them somehow were defeated by life. As elsewhere in his work, Shelley ennobles those who are special, who stand out from the masses, but he nevertheless suggests that they were engaged in a pathetic struggle against this mystic force that reaches out and stymies us.

Prophecy and Visions

A kind of secret knowledge exists in this poem, appearing in flashes, in dreamlike visions communicated to a poet or to another chosen one—that is, to Shelley himself. A poet is depicted as a man absorbed in nature so much that he is merged with it, and in this state a mysterious communication reaches him. It is difficult not to see Shelley as a narcissist not merely in this poem but elsewhere; at the same time, a man whose empathy for the crushed millions less fortunate than himself is evident. Just as in the “Ode to the West Wind,” Shelley wants this poem to be a message to “unawakened earth,” the “trumpet of a prophecy,” but because he died before completing “The Triumph of Life,” we cannot know what that prophecy and those words finally were to be.

Shelley’s style is based partly on the prophetic books of the Bible, especially Revelation. Like Saint John, Shelley, in his isolation, is being granted the key to the future of the world, but for Shelley it is not a Christian vision but a humanist one. It is a vision the speaker of “The Triumph of Life” receives, falling into a kind of trance. But the trancelike state is one that is simultaneously projected outward, mesmerizing the reader as well.

The Power of Words

Shelley’s sentences are deliberately overextended; he revels in the beauty of words for their own sake, as if poetry were primarily to be valued as a kind of music, almost more than for its meaning. Shelley’s detractors saw this as a fault, but it can also be regarded as a virtue that enhances the power of his verse. The reader is placed in a nearly hypnotic state, and there is a nonverbal message that comes through in such a way that although “The Triumph of Life” is a kind of unfinished puzzle, we nevertheless can sense its profundity and timelessness.

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