The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

III. Shelley

§ 9. The Triumph of Life

In April, the Pisan circle broke up, and Shelley, eager for the sea, settled, with Mary, and Edward and Jane Williams, in a lonely mansion, Casa Magni, on the wild Spezian bay. Several of the lyrics to Jane were written here, but his central pre-occupation was the uncompleted Triumph of Life. Petrarch, in his Trionfi, had portrayed men subjugated by love, chastity, time. For Shelley, life itself, the “painted veil” which obscures and disguises the immortal spirit, is a more universal conqueror, and, in vision, he sees this triumphal chariot pass, “on the storm of its own rushing splendour,” over the captive multitude of men. Dante, rather than Petrarch, has inspired the conduct of the vision, where Rousseau, the darkened light whence a thousand beams had been kindled, interprets, like Vergil, to the rapt and questioning poet. Much of the symbolism is obscure, but the significant allusion to the Paradiso—

  • the rhyme
  • Of him whom from the lowest depths of hell
  • Through every Paradise and through all glory
  • Love led serene, and who returned to tell
  • In words of hate and awe—the wondrous story
  • How all things are transfigured except Love—
  • justifies the surmise that love, which arms heroic spirits against the sway of life, was, in some way, to win the final triumph. The terza rima is very nobly handled, with a dominant fluidity which is more Petrarchian than Dantesque, but with moments of concentrated brevity which belong to the greater model. And the passionate outlook upon life which pervades and informs it marks Shelley’s kinship. The sequel, doubtless, would have added clearness to a poem which remains one of the grandest, but by no means the least enigmatic, among the torsos of modern poetry.

    The Triumph of Life was the occupation of summer days spent afloat with Williams, on the Spezian bay. On 8 July, Shelley’s boat was run down, it is said deliberately, in a sudden squall. His ashes, by the care of Trelawny, were buried in the protestant cemetery at Rome, side by side with those of the great brother-poet whose requiem he had sung, and whose poetry had been his companion in the hour of death.