Written in the early summer of 1822, Shelley left “The Triumph of Life” unfinished when he died on July 8, 1822, when his boat Don Juan capsized. Indeed, Shelley had written part of the poem while sailing in this very same boat.
Earlier in that same fateful year, feeling restless amid his circle of friends at Pisa and irritated by the company of the sardonic Byron, Shelley had the plan to divert his attention to amateur theatricals; he even planned to act in Othello. Though this never came to pass, Shelley continued to be interested in drama. He also became infatuated with Jane Williams, the common-law wife of his friend Edward, while he shared a summer rental with Edward and Jane. The Casa Magni, near Lerici, was set amid the romantic surroundings of a steep and thickly wooded hillside. In Jane, Shelley found spiritual relief during times of torment or melancholy. He also enjoyed the beauty of her singing, and she was the inspiration for a series of poems Shelley addressed to her, “[t]he best and brightest / . . . Fairer far than this fair day.” The first of this series is “To Jane. The Invitation,” and in it Shelley adopts a relaxed tone that speaks of romantic love in a calm and even voice he would incorporate into his final poem.
“The Triumph of Life” is a poem whose structure bears some resemblance to the medieval genre of the dream-vision, an allegory or story containing moral and religious significance though embedded within a more obvious narrative tale. Its common elements include a poet who falls asleep in an idyllic scene, a garden or pleasant wood, lulled by the soothing sounds of Nature, dreaming of real people or symbolic actions, which, upon waking, will be memorable and laden with profound significance. Stated in another way, the dream-vision can be the story of the poet’s psychological journey, a dream that begins in great confusion and ends with a vision of perfect harmony. Although “The Triumph of Life” does not strictly conform to the medieval genre, this genre does provide a framework for understanding the fantastic imagery conjured up by a “dreaming” poet caught up in a “trance of wondrous thought.”
Additionally, there is yet another medieval element in the poem: the notion of a pageant or celebration, although for Shelley it exists as a sham imitation, “the just similitude / Of a triumphal pageant.” “The Triumph of Life” holds many images of pageants, and the word pageant itself derived from the medieval Latin word pagina, which referred to the stage or platform for open air-performances of mystery plays; this platform was mounted on wheels so that it could be moved from town to town.
The poem also takes its name from poems of the medieval poet Petrarch called Trionfi. This word is from the Latin triumphus, referring to the ceremonial entrance of a victorious general into ancient Rome, followed by a procession, through the “sacred” gates (porta triumphalis) that were barred to all others. The procession often led to the temple of Jupiter on the Capitol, and it would also include the general’s prisoners of war. Essentially, it was made up of the triumphator, dressed in costume, on a four-horse chariot, accompanied by outriders, displaying the spoils of war, the army, and the animals for sacrifice. The entire senate and all the magistrates were supposed to escort this entourage; the right to triumph was dependent on a vote of the people, granting permission for the general to retain his army in the city. However, in the late republics, the original rules were bent by the influence of political power and soon became the monopoly of the emperor.
Other interpretations of the word triumph within “The Triumph of Life” are simply procession or victory, and for Shelley the word may denote humanity’s victory over Nature and the restraints and struggles of mortal existence. Or perhaps this poem uses an ironic application of the word triumph, for the frenzied crowd has in fact no cause to celebrate.
In the beginning lines of the poem (the first 40), we are presented with an energized scene, unlike the sweetness and repose of its medieval prototype, in which nature fully partakes of the festivities: “Swift as a spirit hastening to his task . . . the Sun sprang forth, / Rejoicing in his splendour, and the mask / Of darkness fell from the awakened Earth.” This is hardly a setting for midday dreaming but rather a boisterous awakening from a sleeping state, summoning all to the temple to participate in the ceremonial rites. “The smokeless altars of the mountain snows / Flamed above crimson clouds,” and the flowers themselves quivered from the excitement as they “unclose / Their trembling eyelids to the kiss of day.”
Nevertheless, the sensuousness of the scene also contains suggestions of something far more sacred in its Christian overtones: “Rise as the Sun their father rose, to bear / Their portion of the toil which he of old / Took as his own and then imposed on them.” Thus we understand that the poet is implying a significance far deeper than the sensual indulgence of the opening lines. Despite all the pageantry, his dream-like vision begins at line 29, “[w]hen a strange trance over my fancy grew / Which was not slumber, for the share it spread / Was so transparent that the scene came through.” This trance strangely transforms the earlier noise into a quieter scene, incorporating some of the elements of its medieval prototype: “[A]nd heard as there / The birds, the fountains and the Ocean hold / Sweet talk in music through the enamoured air.”
However, this quieting of nature serves as the prelude to another unexpected shock, for next we are transported, along with the poet, into a nightmarish procession, “thick strewn with summer dust, and a great stream / Of people . . . Numerous as gnats upon the evening gleam” with the strange and foreboding message of imminent death, “with steps towards the tomb,” of young and old, made equal by the terrible sight. “Mixed in one might torrent did appear. / Some flying from the thing they feared and some / Seeking the object of another’s fear.” The poet hints that some are stricken by the unrelieved solitariness of narcissistic preoccupation and misguided quest. Most importantly and perhaps most terrible, similar to Dante’s Inferno, all those who are caught up in this breathless procession are condemned to an enervating waste of energy, so much so that they appear doomed to futile pursuit of that which they can never hope to attain. “Old men and women foully disarrayed / Shake their grey hair in the insulting wind . . . To reach the car of light which leaves them still.” Indeed, “The Triumph of Life” rehearses a variety of images, all of which underscore the theme of exhaustion and fruitless effort.
Presiding over this procession, which “throng grew wilder, as the woods of June / When the South wind shakes the extinguished day—,” is a frightening chariot piloted by a deformed Shape, “[b]eneath a dusky hood and double cape, Crouching within the shadow of a tomb,” a messenger of death himself who can hardly be trusted as a spiritual guide. He is a “Janus-visaged Shadow,” like the Roman god represented on the gates of the city, who looks both ways, before and after, only this Shadowy charioteer has four faces, all of which are blindfolded, carried along at a breathless and unavailing speed. The entourage shackled to that chariot are those who have abused their power, as “imperial Rome poured forth her living sea.” The chariot bears “a captive multitude . . . all those who had grown old in power / Or misery,—all who have their aged subdued, / By action or by suffering.” This motley crew, representatives of a depraved earthly existence, is contrasted with the sacred few who had the wisdom and the spiritual understanding to reject the empty trappings of worldly power. “All but the sacred few who could not tame / Their spirits to the Conqueror . . . As soon / As they had touched the world with living flame / Fled back like eagles to their native noon.”
As Shelley is observing “this sad pageantry,” he asks himself just what this motley crew of shadowy figures is really all about. The answer he receives is “Life,” from a “grim Feature” who offers to explain all the events that have taken place since morning. This grim figure is none other than Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a French philosopher, writer, and political theorist whose writings inspired the French Revolution and influenced the Romantic writers. He was an important influence on Shelley in that he was a radical thinker, speaking out against religious dogma in favor of a more individual and emotional response toward God; he also endorsed complete political freedom for all people. In this poem, he is Shelley’s guide, a wise but somewhat “fallen” figure who cannot even save himself.
One of the most important aspects of Rousseau’s thinking we see in “The Triumph of Life,” which advocates moderation of the emotions, is the concept that the emotions are vital to relationships of love and friendship. Indeed, Rousseau’s famous autobiographical Confessions recounts his own youthful excesses: “Corruption would not now thus much inherit / Of what was once Rousseau—nor this disguise / Stain that within which still disdains to wear it.—” Thus, Rousseau’s life serves as an example of the misguided celebrants who are “tortured by the agonizing pleasure” that results from overindulgence in those sensuous pleasures that lead them “[o]ft to new bright destruction.” Yet the lesson Rousseau is most anxious to teach Shelley concerns the abuse of power, an abuse that stems from people not truly understanding themselves or their motivations and impulses. In that lack of understanding, they fail to able to distinguish desire and virtue. “And much I grieved to think how power and will / In opposition rule our mortal day / And why God made irreconcilable / Good and the means of good.” Most important of all is the fact that Rousseau does not forget to include himself in the list of those whose efforts have been perverted, whose talents were wasted, or whose focus was lead astray. He assigns culpability to himself for having indiscriminately and immoderately given in to his desires, unlike “[t]he great bards of old who only quelled / The passions.” His voice comes to us from a poem predicated on the need to moderate the emotions and respect the physical limitations of human existence. “‘I was overcome / By my own heart alone, which neither age / Nor tears nor infamy nor now the tomb / Could temper to its object.’” Neither was he able to distinguish between those of true worth and false demagogues: “‘I desire to worship those who drew / New figures on its false and fragile glass / As the old faded.’” “‘Figures ever new / Rise on the bubble.’”
Yet, for all of Rousseau’s failings, he was a man of great vision and high hopes for humanity, and the same motivating spirit of his younger days remains invincible, rendering him fit to serve as Shelley’s counselor in this sad parade of lost souls. For Rousseau, himself a former participant in this “mock” pageant, “I among the multitude / Was swept; me sweetest flowers delayed not long, / . . . but among / The thickest billows of the living storm / I plunged.” Therefore, we should not be surprised that his spirit, even in retrospect, remains indomitable till the very end. For there is, at least in Rousseau’s thinking, a mitigating circumstance, if not a redemptive principle, within his own history—namely, love and unfailing loyalty to his heart’s desires.
Although “The Triumph of Life” ends on a note of fatalism regarding the human condition, it still offers the chance to recoup a type of spirituality by remaining faithful to one’s hopes and aspirations. Despite the fact that there is pain and suffering, one needs to be fully responsive to all life’s circumstances. Though referring specifically to Dante, Rousseau’s message is universal. “Of him who from the lowest depths of Hell / Through every Paradise and through all glory / Love led serene, and who returned to tell . . . How all things are transfigured, except Love.”
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Source: Harold, Bloom, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House Publishers. 1985.