The Triumph of Life: by P. B. Shelley - Summary & Analysis

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      The Triumph of Life is a fragment. Composed in 1822, it is the last of Shelley's compositions. What is worthy of note in the poem is that to the very end the poet tended progressively towards pure abstractions. The poem owes its origin to a dream which "visited on my brain was rolled", he says. The vision was that of a chariot in which was seated a shape, while around the vehicle and following it were many more human shapes. This grand spectacle was a manifestation of life. The charioteer was a Janus-faced shadow, and all the "four faces of that charioteer had their eyes banded." This shadow is the "eyeless charioteer, Destiny", the blind necessity of the other poems including Prometheus Unbound. The purport of the poem is to render necessity in terms of life, forming appropriately a fragmentary conclusion, to the poet's life and works.

The Triumph of Life is a fragment. Composed in 1822, it is the last of Shelley's compositions. What is worthy of note in the poem is that to the very end the poet tended progressively towards pure abstractions. The poem owes its origin to a dream which "visited on my brain was rolled", he says. The vision was that of a chariot in which was seated a shape, while around the vehicle and following it were many more human shapes. This grand spectacle was a manifestation of life. The charioteer was a Janus-faced shadow, and all the "four faces of that charioteer had their eyes banded." This shadow is the "eyeless charioteer, Destiny", the blind necessity of the other poems including Prometheus Unbound. The purport of the poem is to render necessity in terms of life, forming appropriately a fragmentary conclusion, to the poet's life and works.
The Triumph of Life

      Shelley as a Visionary Poet: Shelley has been considered as the most visionary of all English poets, and his poetry has been described as the fabric of vision'. It was the vision of an idealist and a prophet; the vision of a poet who was dissatisfied with the actual world as he saw it, and who aspired to change it according to his cherished ideals. Throughout his poetic career his main efforts were devoted to giving a proper shape to this vision, so that humanity may come to love and understand it and thus make it possible for this vision to take a practical shape. "Shelley's greatest efforts were expanded, on the arrangement, clarification and development of his vision. His characteristic texture is loosely woven of many strings, as if he hoped that through the evil of language his readers might discern the complex and many faced vision on which his texture was based. He attempted to be the philosophic interpreter of the great vision of supernal beauty and love—a vision which he knew to be unapprehended by the majority of men and only apprehended in perception and expression by the poet himself, yet a vision absolutely necessary to the moral progress and mental well-being of the benighted world of men. Knowledge of this great vision meant knowledge of the 'moral law of love'.


      The poet resting under a hill-side remembers having been there before. He then sees a chariot, like the one used in the Roman Triumph. One of the former followers of the Chariot, Rousseau, now describes how he awoke under a hillside and how, after deserting a 'fair shape' that first appeared to him in order to join the celebrants of the same Chariot of Life, he ended up disfigured and broken. Tired of the cheerless continuation of specters, Shelley questions his guide who recalls his own life-story with more interpretation than Confessions. When young, Rousseau knew the mystic communion with Nature felt by many Romantics after him, when the earth seemed alive with 'magic sound' and enveloped in a supernatural light. The climax came when 'a shape all light' offered him a crystal glass and he rose to drink from it But before the glass was put to his lips he hesitated and the vision faded into a colder light. This light, he observed, issued from the chariot of worldly life.

      The 'shape all light' might be described as the essence of what is seen or felt by those who think they have mystic communion with the higher power, or it may represent the guiding light of ideals. This brilliant shape is usually seen for a moment, because it soon fades into the light of common day like the morning star after dawn, unless kept constantly in view, and only the chosen few are capable of such constancy. Rousseau often had a glimpse of the light when he gave up urban living and retired to the country loveliness. Yet he was constantly being lured into the polluting flow of worldly life; he lacked the will to keep the shape always in view.

      People celebrating the Chariot of Life are continually projecting shadows of themselves which are transformed by the Chariot's 'creative ray' into phantoms seen by Shelley. Producing shadows causes exhaustion and the forms producing them like that of Rousseau, soon fall by the wayside, 'those from whose forms most shadows emanated are the soonest to fall.' There occurs a break in the poem as Shelley and Rousseau begin to discuss the meaning of the vision they have shared.


      The Theme of The Poem: The voluntary or involuntary surrender of personal integrity in exchange for non-spiritual values is the theme of Shelley's last poem, The Triumph of Life. Triumph may mean simply procession, for the existing fragment describes a procession of phantoms. More probably, triumph means victory. If so, is it the victory of man over Nature, over the restraints now stifling him, as in Prometheus Unbound, or is it the victory of life over Man, as Petrarch's Trionfi would suggest? The settled melancholy of the existing fragment and references to Life, the conqueror, might imply the gloomier alternative. Carlos Baker and S.F. Gingerich support this view. Shelley pictures the life of this world as a cold inferno set in the midst of unapprehended paradise. This is also borne out by the hints of Dante and Petrarch we find in the poem. Nearly all the great personages in history pass down the dusty roadway, following the triumphal chariot of the worldly Life. Like barbarian prisoners in a Roman triumph they are in chains. "In the battle Life that they did wage," Rousseau explains, "She remained conqueror"; Rousseau being a substitute for Virgil in Dante's Divine Comedy. The notable exceptions, absentees from the procession, are the sacred few who could not tame their Spirits (personal integrity) to the power of Worldly Life. These are of Athens and Jerusalem—Socrates and Jesus Christ. It is the final measure of Shelley's tragic view of life that his sacred few should be so few indeed.

      Allegiance to Power above Earth: If Jesus and Socrates are Shelley's ultimate earthly heroes, his deepest allegiance is reserved for a supernatural power in which all such heroes share, even the lesser men among them. Shelley's religion is unorthodox and individualistic in the extreme, but also strong and consistent. It should be thought of—not as antagonistic to his humanism but as the universal setting in which his humanism flourished. Like a true evangelical, he never desisted from the attempt to make others understand the spiritual truths he knew. He was a natural platonist; he was also a natural theist. Even when very young, he recognized the existence of a supreme and beneficent force. By 1816, he attempted to define it as Intellectual Beauty. Afterwards, he came to think of it more exactly as cosmic love, the constant "One" in a world of flux where the people undergo change and pass. His symbol for this spiritual energy is the idealized figure of a woman. In the Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, the goddess has not yet taken form. Intellectual Beauty is only "the awful shadow of some unseen power." By the time of Prometheus Unbound, the power has been incarnated in Asia, wife of the Titan. In the Triumph of Life, she assumes the name and form of the rainbow-goddess, Iris. The poem shows how he put his theism to work. The whole broad structure rests on the faith that is available to the perceptive and imaginative man, an inexhaustible reservoir of spiritual energy. It is the "plastic stress" of the one supreme Spirit which sweeps through the dull, dense world and tortures the unwilling dross toward its own magnificent likeness. It is also that "sustaining Love" which burns bright or dim through the realm of being according to the imaginative capabilities of its various recipients. All creatures and things are as mirrors reflecting the fire for which all thirst." The state of grace in Shelleyan theology is the near approach to the Supreme Likeness; the state of sin is a turning away from the Supreme God. But the Supreme Love is always available to those who earnestly seek it. This is all that "gives grace and truth to life's unquiet dream."

      Literary Influences on the Poem: The Triumph of Life, with its hints of Dante and Petrarch, is a reminder that English poetry owes more to Italy than to any other foreign country. The process began when Chaucer borrowed from Boccacio, and from then on Italian influence grew, reaching a climax in the Elizabeth's reign. A dozen of Shakespeare's plays have scenes set in Italy; many of the finest effects in the Faerie Queene come straight from the epics of Tasso and Ariosto: Petrarch's sonnet form, brought in by Wyatt and Surrey was accepted by a majority of poets. This Italian infiltration could not be ignored by later poets; they had to keep half an eye on standards set by a language which grace and influence have molded.

      The Triumph of Life is the only major poem of Shelley in which the chief literary influences are Italian. In Prometheus Unbound, Adonais and Hellas, Aeschylus and Theocritus provided models; in Epipsychidion, Dante is one of several to whom he is indebted; in The Cenci, he chose an Italian subject but looked to the Elizabethan dramatists for his style. In The Triumph of Life, Dante's ghost haunts the poem from the beginning to the end, reminding us that Shelley was the only nineteenth-century poet capable of following Dante's footsteps. Though Shelley does not make Dante take part in the phantom procession in the poem he duly pays his tribute to him:

.....a wonder worthy of the rhyme
Of him who from lowest depths of hell,
Through every paradise and through all glory,
Love led serene, and who returned to tell
The words of hate and awe.

      Apart from Dante and Petrarch, literary influences on The Triumph of Life are hard to find. The only certain antecedent is in The Faerie Queene. The Chariot of worldly life, over-running men, derives from Tucifer's coach, drawn by six "unequal beasts", under whose hooves:

all scattered lay
Dead skulls and bones of men whose life had gone astray
(Faerie Queene, I, iv, 36)

      Shelley's Philosophy of Life Unchanged: The philosophy of life embodied in The Triumph of Life is of individual good life, which should be spent pursuing the summum bonum, that 'shape all light' which lures artists, scientists, mystics, thinkers and youthful idealists to toil in its service. In judging Rousseau and Plato, Shelley seems to demand unbroken allegiance to this ideal, rejecting the comfortable Christian compromise of forgiving lapses. Had this trend in his thought continued, he might have become pre-occupied with the theme of loyalty to the guiding light, as much as Shakespeare was with loyalty to individuals or the state. Can we keep this light in constant view if we are immersed in the dirty stream of worldly life? The Triumph of Life seems to answer 'No'; the mud soon gets into our eyes. Instead, we should avoid the 'contagion of the world's slow stain' by retiring, before our youthful ideals have faded, to live humbly, unnoticed and unsullied, far from the busy hum of men, in other words, the life Rousseau yearned for and Wordsworth stood for. This would probably be Shelley's advice to today's harassed men-of-affairs, who waste their energy trying to run ever faster in the treadmill of worldly life.

      The Ripening Mind of Shelley: His Quest for Permanence: In The Triumph of Life, Shelley was beginning to acquire the Olympian detachment which gives Dante and Shakespeare so much of their strength. Previously his feelings overpowered him when he looked at the world. These strong reactions were useful when he confronted Nature, but disturbing when he confronted human beings. The detachment that came in his last year was accompanied by disillusion and the rule that a poet is at his best after the age of 30 might have applied to Shelley as well as to Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Byron, Tennyson and indeed almost every major English poet who lived to be over thirty. John Holloway observes: "Only in The Triumph of Life, at the very end of his career, does one hear, sustained throughout and wholly serious work, that note of composure and calm and indeed of dry shrewdness, which offers the reader of his very difficult poem a kind of reassurance new in Shelley."

      There is certainly no discrepancy between the swift onrush of the language and the complexity of the thought, or density of the symbolic meaning, which the language embodies. Shelley's mind seems to have worked faster, intellectually and emotionally at once, than the minds of any of his readers, and because he lacked an audience he never learned to allow for the difference. The restlessness of Shelley's verse reflects a particular and unique apprehension of reality. Shelley notices constant motion in the natural world; he seldom presents anything that suggests repose or permanence. In his poetry even the stars 'whirl and flee like a swarm of golden bees'; the earth instead of following its slow planetary orbit, 'dances about the sun'. In fact, images of repose and solidity in Shelley's poetry seem to exist mainly to dramatize the force that shakes them. The contrast thus noticed between Keats's descriptive language of solidity and achieved repose and Shelley's process and struggle, points to something much more fundamental than a difference of style—namely, Shelley's attitude to change.

      Most lyric poetry is a cry of anguish against transience, altered love; perishable beauty; physical death. Yet life has evolved through biological change, and persists from moment to moment by changing. Shelley is distinctive in that although he imagined and desired ’Elysian, windless, fortunate abodes' of social and sexual equality; where Nature would be wholly under man's co-operative control— where, in Platonic metaphor, the many would be identical with the One—he accepted imaginatively the process of change that alone could lead towards such a goal. The goal itself, he knew to be unattainable, because his very acceptance of change gave him also a quite exceptional awareness of man's Situation in infinite time, of the limited and relative nature of every human society and attribute. All other poets reject change emotionally even when their reason acknowledges it to be inevitable. Shelley's uniqueness is that in some of his best poetry his whole poetic personality ranges on the side of change. e.g., with Demogorgon who will overthrow Jupiter. Shelley does not normally look forward to escaping from the flux of reality into some transcendental permanent world, but seeks unity with the Ideal in its incessant struggle to realize itself through the transient things of Nature and of human society:

bursting in its beauty and its might
From trees and beasts and men into the Heavens' light

      Style and Diction: Even though this poem is the last attempt of Shelley; yet in handling words, he was never more skillful than in The Triumph of Life. The meter of this poem is Terza rima. "The sonorous march and sultry splendor of the Terza rima" says Symonds, "affect the imagination so powerfully that we are fain to abandon criticism and acknowledge only the daemonic fascination of this solemn mystery." Shelley is the only English poet who has successfully handled this most difficult of meters. His power over complicated verification can best be appreciated by noticing the method, he employed in treating a structure which is perhaps alien to the genius of English Literature. The very exordium of the poem shows Shelley's mastery over this meter. The language is sometimes leavened by what we might call purple patches in the old manner. Rousseau's life story, for example, takes us half-way back to Alastor. Shelley still uses the technique of impassioned observation, as in the portrait, of 'the old moon in the new moon's arms.'

      Conclusion: In his best writing, personal suffering is felt as a qualifying force that accompanies the main affirmative movement of the poem. Shelley is almost invariably strong in poems where the social, the natural and the personal worlds coincide, when he is most purely personal. Conflict is inherent in his poetry, as it was in his view of the world and in the actions of his life. Perhaps for this very reason, Shelley is the only great English poet outside the twentieth century who would be entirely at home among the social changes, scientific, and political struggles of today.

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