30 pages 1 hour read

Percy Bysshe Shelley

The Triumph of Life

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1824

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

The Triumph of Life, a poem written by Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1822 at the Villa Magni in Lerici, Italy, was not completed in Shelley’s lifetime. While it was the last major poem Shelley worked on before his accidental drowning in 1822, The Triumph of Life was published as an unfinished work in Posthumous Poems (1824), with minor edits by his wife, Mary Shelley. The Triumph of Life was inspired by Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy (1321) and Francesco Petrarch’s Trionfi (Triumphs) (1351), and Shelley uses the same verse form as these earlier poets: terza rima—stanzas with three lines and a consistent rhyme scheme. Shelley was also inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who appears as a character in The Triumph of Life. The visionary poem explores The Dualities of Life, The Power of Love, and The Power of Nature.

Poet Biography

In 1792, Percy Bysshe Shelley was born in Sussex, England, to a wealthy family. Shelley’s grandfather, Sir Bysshe Shelley, became the 1st Baronet of Castle Goring in 1806. Shelley began studying at Eton College in 1804. In 1810, he enrolled at University College, Oxford, but was expelled the following year for writing and distributing a pamphlet on atheism with Thomas Jefferson Hogg. After his expulsion, Shelley married 16-year-old Harriet Westbrook and fathered two children. Together, they lived in Dublin, Wales, and London. After the couple began supporting the philosopher William Godwin, Shelley fell in love with Godwin’s daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin.

In 1814, Shelley abandoned Harriet, and a few years later, their son, Charles, died. After becoming pregnant by, and abandoned by, another man, Harriet died by suicide. Shelley ran away to France with Mary. The following year, they began a polyamorous arrangement with Mary Jane “Claire” Clairmont and Hogg. That same year, Mary and Shelley’s first child was born and died. Also in 1815, Sir Bysshe Shelley died, and Shelley inherited enough money to pay off his debts, in addition to receiving annual payments.

In 1816, Mary and Shelley married and had a son, William. The couple traveled around England and Europe with Lord Byron (George Gordon), Claire, and others. At one point, famine conditions forced them to shelter in a manor with the enigmatic Lord Byron, which is where Mary wrote her novel Frankenstein. In 1817, Mary and Shelley had another child, Clara, who died the following year. William died in 1819, and that year, the couple had another child, Percy Florence, the only one of their children who survived into adulthood. Mary had a miscarriage shortly after Shelley began working on The Triumph of Life in 1822; later that year, Shelley drowned in a tragic accident.

Shelley’s writing started being published in 1810, with a gothic novel titled Zastrozzi. In addition to his novels, Shelley authored drama, nonfiction, long narrative poems, and short lyric poems. He wrote Queen Mab (1813), Prometheus Unbound (1820), “Ode to the West Wind” (1820), “The Cloud” (1820), and A Defense of Poetry (1821), all before beginning The Triumph of Life.

Poem text

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. The Triumph of Life. 1824. Poetry Foundation.

SUMMARY

The Triumph of Life is an incomplete work. However, the existing 548 lines can be broken into four complete sections. The poem also includes the beginning of a fifth section.

Section 1 Summary

The first section, containing the first 40 lines, is the poem’s introduction. The speaker (the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley) describes the sunrise in a mountainous region. His description includes the sun erasing the darkness, and various aspects of nature, such as snow, ocean, and birds. The speaker focuses on the flowers opening and releasing their perfume for a few stanzas. Then, there is an overview of various geographical features, like a continent and an island, being lit up by the sun.

Halfway through the introduction, in Line 21, the speaker indicates how he didn’t sleep during the night due to an unnamed emotional crisis. He is out of sync with the beautiful sunrise, which he watches while stretching under a tree in the Apennines (an Italian mountain range). As the day grows, he falls into a trance. He knows he is not asleep because the dew covers him, as well as the surrounding plants. As he listens to the birds, a fountain, and the ocean, he receives a vision.

Section 2 Summary

The second section, Lines 41-175, is a description of a processional, or parade, that appears in the speaker’s vision. It moves along a street in the summertime. A large number of people are compared to autumn leaves. They are diverse in age and pursue—or are pursued by—fears. Some people squish worms. These people interact with shadows in various ways: They walk within/across them, they ignore them, they pursue them, or they flee from them. The shadows are cast by clouds, birds, or themselves. The people in the processional are cut off from nature, unable to hear the fountains or feel the wind. The speaker describes the nature that he can see but they can’t, including trees, clearings, caves, and riverbanks.

Then, the speaker thinks that the people become more wild, and compares them to the wind. There is an intense, cold light, and the speaker compares it to the moon going through different phases. The light is a chariot and is accompanied by a shadowy shape. The chariot is drawn by winged creatures that the speaker can hear rather than see. The charioteer has four faces, and all of its eyes are blindfolded. This makes the speaker consider how the chariot might go off course, but it moves majestically.

The speaker looks around at the crowd’s wild dance. He compares the processional in his vision with the processionals in ancient Rome. The speaker describes the captives around the chariot. Some are powerful, and others are sorrowful. They have been through many cycles of producing flowers and fruit, like a tree trunk. These people may have been famous, or infamous, in life, but death takes away their names and bodies. There are a few exceptions, who are not in the processional, such as people who offer their flame and then return to the sun. Other exceptions reject money and power.

Next, the speaker describes the dance surrounding the chariot. The movements of the dancers are wild and unrestrained. Lustful dancers are spun by whirlwinds. They take down their hair. In the center of the dance is a radiant woman, and the young dancers move close to and then away from her light, like moths. Like lightning striking in the mountains, some people in the processional are burned and fall in the street. However, the speaker doesn’t see the chariot run over them—there is little evidence that they were there, like foam on the beach after tides change. Old dancers trail behind the others in the parade, moving slowly toward the chariot. The speaker contrasts their coldness with the fiery young dancers.

Section 3 Summary

This section, from Line 176 to Line 295, is the beginning of the conversation between the shade of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the speaker. The speaker asks, to no one in particular, who is in the chariot. Rousseau answers that life is in the chariot. In an aside, the speaker describes how he thought Rousseau was part of the natural surroundings—a tree root and grass. Rousseau says he will tell the speaker about the processional. The speaker asks who he is, and the shade shares his name, as well as the fact that he lived and died before the speaker was born.

Then, the speaker asks who are the people chained to the chariot. Rousseau says they are religious and political leaders. He points out Napoleon, and the speaker reflects on how Napoleon fell, as well as the concept of power and goodness. Rousseau points out the writers Voltaire and Kant, and specific members of royalty, such as King Frederic II of Prussia and Leopold II of Belgium. Next, Rousseau explains that life conquered them, and that he was conquered by his heart. The speaker and Rousseau discuss how new replaces old. Rousseau points out and describes famous philosophers, such as Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle. Life’s power includes love, which can conquer people unmoved by money or torture.

Rousseau discusses Francis Bacon, the Proteus myth, and caves in literature. Then, he discusses poets from antiquity who were temperate while writing about excessive passions. Rousseau felt all the pain that he wrote about, and his writings were inflammatory. The speaker argues that there are people who were worse than Rousseau. Rousseau points out Julius Caesar, Roman Emperor Constantine I, and Pope Gregory VII and other popes, and then classifies them all as destructive. Rousseau classifies himself in contrast to them, as a creator.

Section 4 Summary

In the last complete section, Lines 296-543, Rousseau discusses his life. The speaker prompts him to do so, asking about Rousseau’s past and future. Rousseau doesn’t have answers for why the processional of life exists, but he recalls how he came to be part of it. He slept in a cave under a mountain that has a river that keeps the flowers and grass alive. The sound of the river causes people to forget their lives. Rousseau offers examples of this, such as a mother forgetting her dead child, a king forgetting his lost crown, and him forgetting his own life.

He can only remember waking up in the woods, near the river, and seeing a light. This light is the sun’s reflection in a well. A woman in the light splashes the water from the well’s fountain, creating a rainbow. She carries a glass made of crystal, which holds a drug that causes forgetfulness, and walks along the river. Her light hair touches the water when she bends over it. Rousseau describes how she moves her feet: They tread, glide, and dance in time with nature. He compares her movement to a summer wind over a moonlit lake. Her dancing feet cause people to forget—she stamps out memories like embers. Rousseau also compares her movement that causes forgetfulness to the day replacing the night.

Rousseau asks the woman for answers about the location, how he got here, and why he is here. She tells him to drink, and he drinks from her glass. Rousseau compares the experience of drinking to waves erasing the tracks of deer and a wolf on the beach. This is the quality of his vision. He compares the waning light of the woman to the morning star (Venus and Lucifer) in the sunrise. Then, he compares the light to the scent of flowers spread by an evening breeze, the song of a Brescian shepherd, and a caress that causes contentment. There is a ghostly shape on the stream that moves alongside Rousseau.

He develops his description of the chariot moving through the forest. It is triumphant with wild music and a captive audience. There is a victorious rainbow over the chariot. She radiates light, and her dancers are like dust in a sunbeam. Rousseau then describes the chariot’s audience. Some watch the chariot in rapture as it passes by, others move ahead of it, and others circle around it. Many follow behind the chariot, singing a hymn. Rousseau is swept up in this crowd, defining himself with flowers, shadow, and loss of memory. He dives into the cold light of the processional.

Rousseau presents an incredible sight, one that Dante Alighieri would write about in his Inferno and Paradiso. In Dante’s works, all things change, except love. The world isn’t able to hear the music of the illuminated sphere that lovers dance to. Rousseau compares this to the ocean being unable to hear. In a grove, shadows fill the air like bats. Some of these phantoms fly around the white light, some dance in nature, and some sit and make noises like animals. Phantoms sit on kingly capes, crowns, and papal tiaras; they breed under demon wings and laugh at constructions of earthly power. Humans are eaten by worms, which makes them all the same.

Some phantoms are interested in common people. Rousseau compares phantoms gathering around powerful people—such as lawyers, politicians, and priests—with how insects gather. Some phantoms fall on beautiful young humans like snow and melt away. In the process of melting, they take human beauty with them. Life—seen in strength, freshness, and light—falls off of those in the processional. Rousseau compares the numerous shadows with leaves that fall in autumn. The phantoms look like their human selves, then like other phantoms, and then are molded by the blinding light of the chariot. This molding is compared to how the sun molds the clouds. Rousseau explains that the joy of some phantoms is extinguished. Others get tired from dancing in the processional and fall by the side of the street. 

Section 5 Summary

This section is incomplete, containing Lines 544-548. The speaker asks Rousseau what life is, Rousseau watches the processional move past them, and he begins to answer. His answer begins by describing those who are happy in the fold of something, but the sentence breaks off, and the poem is left unfinished.