Episode 54

From The Triumph of Life by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Mark McGuinness reads and discusses a passage from The Triumph of Life by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Poet

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Reading and commentary by

Mark McGuinness

From The Triumph of Life

By Percy Bysshe Shelley

As in that trance of wondrous thought I lay,
This was the tenour of my waking dream:—
Methought I sate beside a public way

Thick strewn with summer dust, and a great stream
Of people there was hurrying to and fro,
Numerous as gnats upon the evening gleam,

All hastening onward, yet none seemed to know
Whither he went, or whence he came, or why
He made one of the multitude, and so

Was borne amid the crowd, as through the sky
One of the million leaves of summers bier;
Old age and youth, manhood and infancy,

Mixed in one mighty torrent did appear,
Some flying from the thing they feared, and some
Seeking the object of anothers fear;

And others, as with steps towards the tomb,
Pored on the trodden worms that crawled beneath,
And others mournfully within the gloom

Of their own shadow walked, and called it death;
And some fled from it as it were a ghost,
Half fainting in the affliction of vain breath:

But more, with motions which each other crossed,
Pursued or shunned the shadows the clouds threw,
Or birds within the noonday aether lost,

Upon that path where flowers never grew,—
And, weary with vain toil and faint for thirst,
Heard not the fountains, whose melodious dew

Out of their mossy cells forever burst;
Nor felt the breeze which from the forest told
Of grassy paths and wood-lawns interspersed

With overarching elms and caverns cold,
And violet banks where sweet dreams brood, but they

Pursued their serious folly as of old.

Podcast transcript

This is a passage from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s last great poem. And it’s so good, it’s considered a great poem in spite of the fact that he left it unfinished when he died.

It begins in a deliberately conventional mode, that of the dream vision, which Shelley would have known was a staple of medieval literature. What typically happens is the speaker of the poem falls asleep or falls into a trance and sees a vision in a dream. One famous example from 14th century English poetry is William Langland’s long poem Piers Plowman, where the speaker wanders through the Malvern hills, lies down to sleep and dreams a vision of a ‘fair field full of folk’, representing the life of humanity in the world.

So at the start of Shelley’s poem, which I haven’t read you, the narrator says he was outside in the countryside, when he found himself in ‘a strange trance… which was not slumber… and then a vision on my brain was rolled’. And then the vision begins as you’ve just heard:

As in that trance of wondrous thought I lay,
This was the tenour of my waking dream:—

And then we get this amazing vision of humanity in the countryside, similar to Piers Plowman, but Shelley has given us a road rather than a field:

Methought I sate beside a public way

Thick strewn with summer dust, and a great stream
Of people there was hurrying to and fro,
Numerous as gnats upon the evening gleam,

All hastening onward, yet none seemed to know
Whither he went, or whence he came, or why
He made one of the multitude, and so

Was borne amid the crowd, as through the sky
One of the million leaves of summer’s bier;
Old age and youth, manhood and infancy,

Mixed in one mighty torrent did appear,

And Shelley gives us a wonderfully precise psychological description of their progress:

Some flying from the thing they feared, and some
Seeking the object of another’s fear;

And others, as with steps towards the tomb,
Pored on the trodden worms that crawled beneath,
And others mournfully within the gloom

Of their own shadow walked, and called it death;
And some fled from it as it were a ghost,
Half fainting in the affliction of vain breath:

But more, with motions which each other crossed,
Pursued or shunned the shadows the clouds threw,
Or birds within the noonday aether lost,

So all of these people are either pursuing or fleeing from something. And I think the Buddha would be proud of this description of the way human beings spend their lives caught up in desire and fear. But being a Romantic poet rather than a Buddhist, Shelley doesn’t suggest that their salvation would come from sitting cross-legged in meditation, but simply by turning aside to contemplate the beauties of nature. He says they are hurrying

Upon that path where flowers never grew,—
And, weary with vain toil and faint for thirst,
Heard not the fountains, whose melodious dew

Out of their mossy cells forever burst;
Nor felt the breeze which from the forest told
Of grassy paths and wood-lawns interspersed

With overarching elms and caverns cold,
And violet banks where sweet dreams brood,

So they are so focused on their fears and desires that they fail to notice the ‘fountains’ bursting out of their ‘mossy cells’, which I assume are little waterfalls in the forest streams. And I want to pick up on that word ‘forever’ when he says that the fountains ‘Out of their mossy cells forever burst’. And we can read ‘forever’ as meaning ‘continually’, but also, I think, Shelley is offering us a glimpse of eternity in these fountains, as if the world of nature is a timeless and blessed realm that the poor deluded humans are oblivious to.

Because eternity is never far away in Shelley’s poetry. Adonais, his great elegy for John Keats, contains the following stunning lines:

Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments.

So these lines describe death trampling life to bits, and I can’t help thinking of the famous medieval painting of that name, The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, which features an army of skeletons, Death’s minions, rampaging through the countryside and killing human beings in all sorts of horrible ways. It’s like the nightmare version of Langland’s ‘fair field full of folk’. And in one corner of the painting a couple of skeletons are riding a horse and cart, crushing people to death under the horse’s hooves and the wheels of the cart, while one of the skeletons plays a jolly tune on a hurdy gurdy.

So given that the triumph of death was a massive cliché in many different artistic genres, and given that Shelley is describing a vision of human beings hurrying along the road to the tomb, and maybe recalling those lines from Adonais, we might reasonably expect Shelley to call this poem The Triumph of Death.

And it certainly looks like that’s what we are being shown, a few lines after the passage I’ve read for you, when a chariot appears with a hooded figure sitting inside it:

So came a chariot on the silent storm
Of its own rushing splendour, and a Shape
So sate within, as one whom years deform,

Beneath a dusky hood and double cape,
Crouching within the shadow of a tomb;
And o’er what seemed the head a cloud-like crape

Was bent, a dun and faint aethereal gloom
Tempering the light.

Shelley wrote this poem in Italy, shortly after visiting Rome, where he had been fascinated and appalled by descriptions of the Roman triumph – the celebrations after a military conquest, where the victor would parade through the streets of Rome, leading captive kings and warriors behind the chariot. And and the conqueror was showered with applause and garlanded with flowers, while the poor captives would have been accorded a rather different treatment by the crowd.

And Shelley goes on to compare the figure in the chariot to a Roman conqueror’s ‘triumphal pageant’, with a ‘captive multitude’ of people being dragged behind it, and more people dancing around it, who are then crushed beneath the wheels of the chariot, just like the horse and cart in Breughel’s painting of The Triumph of Death.

And so, confronted by this horrific spectacle, Shelley’s narrator can’t help asking who is the figure in the chariot:

Struck to the heart by this sad pageantry,
Half to myself I said — ‘And what is this?
Whose shape is that within the car? And why —’

I would have added — ‘is all here amiss? —’
But a voice answered — ‘Life!’

And of course, we know the answer already, because Shelley gave it to us in the poem’s title: The Triumph of Life. And if you were hoping that a poem called The Triumph of Life would be an optimistic, triumphant, uplifting poem, then I’m sorry to disappoint you. Because what Shelley presents us with is not life triumphing over death, but life triumphing over humanity.

As the chariot moves forwards, it rolls over ‘maidens and youths’ and leaves behind ‘Old men and women foully disarrayed’, who shake ‘their gray hairs in the insulting wind’. Life is relentless and remorseless in its progress, and human beings are as ephemeral and expendable as autumn leaves or gnats in the evening air.

The Triumph of Life is a terrifying and appalling idea, and if you read the whole poem you’ll see that Shelley has done this monstrous concept justice with his unforgettable description. Richard Holmes, in his biography of Shelley, calls this ‘one of the great images of English poetry’, and it’s an image that is extended and built up so that it becomes even more awe inspiring and horrific over several pages. And obviously, there’s not room to read the whole thing here, but I will include a link on the website if you are brave enough to read the whole thing.

So as Holmes says, the image of the triumph of life in its chariot is one of the great images in English poetry, but the poet who overshadows this poem, as I’m sure some of you will have picked up is a great Italian poet – Dante Alighieri, the author of the greatest medieval visionary poem of them all: the Divine Comedy.

And there’s absolutely no doubt that Shelley meant us to think of Dante as we read The Triumph of Life. Shelley could read Italian so he had the great privilege of being able to read Dante in the original, and several of the images in the poem are lifted straight from Dante.

The idea of life as a road that we walk upon is of course, from the opening line of the Divine Comedy: ‘Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita’, ‘midway along the road of our life’.

And Shelley’s description of the individuals ‘borne amid the crowd, as through the sky / One of the million leaves of summer’s bier’, recalls the famous image in Dante’s Inferno, where the damned souls are waiting on a riverbank to be ferried across into Hell. Here are Dante’s lines as translated by Longfellow:

As in the autumn-time the leaves fall off,
First one and then another, till the branch
Unto the earth surrenders all its spoils;

In similar wise the evil seed of Adam
Throw themselves from that margin one by one,

And just like the narrator of Dante’s poem, Shelley’s narrator looks at the spectacle of humanity hurrying to its doom and is entranced and appalled. And just at the point where the hero is feeling overwhelmed, his mentor appears, in true Hero’s Journey style. So in Dante’s Inferno, Virgil, the great Roman poet, appears as his guide through hell. In The Triumph of Life, it is Rousseau, the 18th century philosopher, who appears and explains the vision to Shelley’s narrator.

So Shelley borrows several elements from Dante: the basic scenario, the road of life, the image of humanity being whirled along like autumn leaves, and the wise mentor who helps the hero make sense of the horrors that he is confronted with. But even more than this, the thing that inspired Shelley to what T. S. Eliot called ‘some of the greatest and most Dantesque lines in English’ is the verse form.

This form is called terza rima, it was invented by Dante and is forever associated with him. The name ‘terza rima’ means ‘third rhyme’ and the form is composed of tercets, three-line stanzas, which are linked together by interlocking triple rhymes.

So the first tercet of a passage of terza rima rhymes ABA, meaning the first and third lines rhyme. And that B rhyme, in the middle line, then rhymes with the first and third lines of the following stanza, so that one rhymes BCB. And that C rhyme – you guessed it – then spawns another two rhymes in the stanza after that one, so that it rhymes CDC. And so on, until the poet can’t stand it any more and ends with a single line on its own.

In Italian, terza rima lines are typically hendecasyllables, which means they have eleven syllables. Which is roughly equivalent to the English iambic pentameter, the familiar tiTUM tiTUM tiTUM tiTUM tiTUM, and so that is traditionally used for terza rima in English. And that’s what Shelley uses in The Triumph of Life, very fluidly and effectively.

And terza rima is a bit of a niche form in English, but it has appeared on this podcast before, back in Episode 21 when Selena Rodrigues used it in her poem ‘Organza’.

And I was only half joking just now when I said that terza rima continues until the poet can’t stand it any more, because it’s much harder to do this triple rhyme in English than it is in Italian. As I’ve said before, in relation to the Petrarchan sonnet, Italian has a lot more rhyming words than English does.

And Eliot said in the lecture on Dante I just quoted that one of the difficulties of doing terza rima in English is that not only does English have fewer rhymes, but they are more emphatic, and they call too much attention to themselves. He says that Italian is the only language he knows of where exact rhyme can achieve its effect without ‘obtruding itself’.

As a practising poet I know this difficulty from my own experience: a double rhyme in English is relatively easy but triple rhymes get hard. I’m working a long-term project, translating Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde into modern English, I read an extract from it in Episode 12. And I’m sticking to Chaucer’s rime royal which is a seven-line stanza, and every stanza includes one triple rhyme. And I have to tell you in just about every stanza, that triple rhyme is the hardest bit to crack. Well, terza rima is nothing but triple rhymes! So it’s frankly a demanding but also an enticing form to write in English.

Now I have to say Shelley is not very adventurous with his rhymes in the passage we’re looking at today. He uses a lots of the obvious rhymes: ‘lay’ and ‘way’; ‘dream’, ‘stream’ and ‘gleam’; ‘fro’, ‘know’ and ‘so’; ‘threw’, ‘grew’ and ‘dew’; ‘told’, ‘cold’ and ‘old’; and so on. You’ll notice that these are all single-syllable rhymes. He does throw in the odd multi-syllable word, for example rhyming ‘thirst’ and ‘burst’ with ‘interspersed’, but even here, he only rhymes on one syllable.

But remember what Eliot said about the risk of rhymes in English being too emphatic? If Shelley had used fancy rhymes, with unusual words or rhyming two or three syllables at a time, they would have called far too much attention to themselves. The poem would have sounded much more stilted and artificial. And that’s not what he wants, because The Triumph of Life is anything but stilted; it’s a headlong, rushing poem.

And terza rima is the perfect form for this, because it is relentless in its forward movement. It keeps going, it keeps generating itself. Every middle rhyme spawns two more rhymes in the following stanza, which contains another middle rhyme which spawns two more rhymes and so on, ad infinitum. It’s like watching one of those fractal videos that keep opening up and opening up until your mind is thoroughly boggled.

Another analogy occurred to me recently while writing a poem of my own in terza rima. It reminded me of a maddening race we had to do at primary school, where you have two small mats and you have to step on the first mat and throw the other one in front of you. Then you step onto the second mat and pull the other one round from behind you and step onto that one. And writing terza rima feels a bit like that, you have to keep throwing out those two rhymes ahead of you so that you have somewhere to land.

Yet another image that comes to mind is a combine harvester with three rotating blades that keep whirling relentlessly and you definitely don’t want to be caught in its path. Or a conveyor belt that keeps running and running until you stop it. And, of course, that’s perfect for Dante and Shelley’s description of life as a road where we are being hurried forward, whether we want to or not.

And Shelley accentuates and accelerates this headlong effect by extensive use of enjambment, where a grammatical phrase runs on over the end of one line to the beginning of the next one. For example, the passage I read today begins:

As in that trance of wondrous thought I lay,
This was the tenour of my waking dream:—

So these lines are what’s know as end-stopped, meaning the end of the line is the end of a grammatical unit. The end of the first line corresponds to the end of a clause:

As in that trance of wondrous thought I lay,

And the end of the second line is the end of a sentence:

This was the tenour of my waking dream:—

But after these two lines, the lines start to become enjambed:

Methought I sate beside a public way

Thick strewn with summer dust, and a great stream
Of people there was hurrying to and fro,
Numerous as gnats upon the evening gleam,

All hastening onward, yet none seemed to know
Whither he went, or whence he came, or why
He made one of the multitude,

So starting with the line, ‘Methought I sate beside a public way’ – way is the end of the line, but we hardly notice it because we’re going straight into ‘Thick strewn with summer dust’ which is the start of the next line.

Then we get ‘and a great stream’ – line break – ‘Of people there was hurrying to and fro’. It’s as if we are falling from one line to another, like rushing headlong down a spiral staircase.

And this effect accelerates in the next tercet, where the phrases ‘know / Where he went’ and ‘why / He made’ are stretched over the line endings:

All hastening onward, yet none seemed to know
Whither he went, or whence he came, or why
He made one of the multitude, and so

Was borne amid the crowd,

And then we’ve got the words ‘and so’ teetering at the end of not only the line, but the stanza; so that the phrase ‘and so / was born amid the crowd’ feels like it’s falling from one stanza and landing on the one below. So it really feels like we’re being hurried along over the ends of these lines, just like the people in the crowd being hurried along by their fears and desires.

And you know, after this line, which ends with a colon and a dash:

This was the tenour of my waking dream:—

Just about the only punctuation marks in the long passage I read at the beginning are commas, semicolons and dashes. There is a colon after the line:

Half fainting in the affliction of vain breath:

But that’s not really much respite, given that we’re straight into

But more, with motions which each other crossed,

in the next line. So it’s like one long slide, with just a few bumps, all the way down to the full stop at the end:

Upon that path where flowers never grew,—
And, weary with vain toil and faint for thirst,
Heard not the fountains, whose melodious dew

Out of their mossy cells forever burst;
Nor felt the breeze which from the forest told
Of grassy paths and wood-lawns interspersed

With overarching elms and caverns cold,
And violet banks where sweet dreams brood, but they
Pursued their serious folly as of old.

Can you feel the helter-skelter effect of those lines spilling into each other, with no full stops to slow us down, until we reach the end? It makes the poem quite hard to read aloud, because there are not many spaces for you to catch your breath. And you even get that effect, I think from reading it silently on the page. You know, if ever there was a page-turner of a poem, it’s The Triumph of Life.

And let’s just pause to savour that wonderful phrase, ‘serious folly’, when Shelley says the people ‘pursued their serious folly as of old’. What a great phrase that is. Look at any 21st century newspaper, or look at the crowd rushing along any 21st century street, and the phrase is a perfectly apt description of the kind of stuff we get caught up in: rushing out to work, working insanely long hours, arguing over politics, falling in and out of love, watching football, gambling away fortunes, waging wars and so on. And we take it all so seriously, because on one level it is deadly serious, but from another perspective it’s pure folly.

So in this poem Shelley has captured something that rings disturbingly true about life. And famously, his own life ended before he could complete the poem, which was left behind in various untidy manuscripts when he was drowned in a storm at sea. So Shelley certainly fulfilled the criteria for a Romantic poet: live fast, die young, take opium, incite revolution, and meet your fate in dramatic fashion, preferably somewhere picturesque.

Have a listen to this. This is the end of the unfinished manuscript of The Triumph of Life, the very last words he wrote of the poem:

And some grew weary of the ghastly dance,

‘And fell, as I have fallen, by the wayside;—
Those soonest from whose forms most shadows passed,
And least of strength and beauty did abide.

‘Then, what is life? I cried.’ —

And that’s it. That’s the end! The last words of the poet, before he goes to his untimely death. I mean, if you were writing a novel about a Romantic poet who died young while writing a poem about the tragic swiftness of life, and you wanted to make up the poignant last line of the unfinished poem, that’s the line you’d want, isn’t it? You could hardly do better than that.

And I’m tempted to suggest that Shelley was tempting fate when he portrayed life as a triumphant figure trampling humans to pieces in the prime of their life. Because there is certainly a tragic irony in the fact that he was writing a poem on this subject, when he was cut off in his prime.

But of course, it must have been just a coincidence. Mustn’t it?

 


From The Triumph of Life

By Percy Bysshe Shelley

As in that trance of wondrous thought I lay,
This was the tenour of my waking dream:—
Methought I sate beside a public way

Thick strewn with summer dust, and a great stream
Of people there was hurrying to and fro,
Numerous as gnats upon the evening gleam,

All hastening onward, yet none seemed to know
Whither he went, or whence he came, or why
He made one of the multitude, and so

Was borne amid the crowd, as through the sky
One of the million leaves of summers bier;
Old age and youth, manhood and infancy,

Mixed in one mighty torrent did appear,
Some flying from the thing they feared, and some
Seeking the object of anothers fear;

And others, as with steps towards the tomb,
Pored on the trodden worms that crawled beneath,
And others mournfully within the gloom

Of their own shadow walked, and called it death;
And some fled from it as it were a ghost,
Half fainting in the affliction of vain breath:

But more, with motions which each other crossed,
Pursued or shunned the shadows the clouds threw,
Or birds within the noonday aether lost,

Upon that path where flowers never grew,—
And, weary with vain toil and faint for thirst,
Heard not the fountains, whose melodious dew

Out of their mossy cells forever burst;
Nor felt the breeze which from the forest told
Of grassy paths and wood-lawns interspersed

With overarching elms and caverns cold,
And violet banks where sweet dreams brood, but they

Pursued their serious folly as of old.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Portrait engraving of Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley was an English poet who was born in 1792 and died in 1822. He came from an establishment background, the son of an MP, educated at Eton and Oxford. But he was expelled from Oxford for writing a pamphlet on ‘the necessity of atheism’, and went on to express radical political views in his poems, essays and pamphlets. His writing was not widely known during his life, but his influential friends included Lord Byron, and William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, whose daughter Mary he eloped with, after the breakdown of his first marriage to Harriet Westbrook. After his death at the age of 29 he came to be regarded as a leading Romantic poet, known for his lyrics, odes and a series of long poems including Adonais, Prometheus Unbound and The Triumph of Life.  

 


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