by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Charles the First

The Triumph of Life

 Swift as a spirit hastening to his task Of glory and of good, the Sun sprang forth Rejoicing in his splendour, and the mask 
 Of darkness fell from the awakened Earth- The smokeless altars of the mountain snows  Flamed above crimson clouds, and at the birth 
 Of light, the Ocean's orison arose, To which the birds tempered their matin lay. All flowers in field or forest which unclose 
 Their trembling eyelids to the kiss of day,[1] Swinging their censers in the element, With orient incense lit by the new ray 
 Burned slow and inconsumably, and sent Their odorous sighs up to the smiling air; And, in succession due, did continent,  
 Isle, ocean, and all things that in them wear The form and character of mortal mould, 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:  But I, whom thoughts which must remain untold 
 Had kept as wakeful as the stars that gem The cone of night, now they were laid asleep Stretched my faint limbs beneath the hoary stem 
 Which an old chestnut flung athwart the steep  Of a green Apennine: before me fled The night; behind me rose the day; the deep 
 Was at my feet, and Heaven above my head,- When a strange trance over my fancy grew Which was not slumber, for the shade it spread  
 Was so transparent, that the scene came through As clear as when a veil of light is drawn O'er evening hills they glimmer; and I knew 
 That I had felt the freshness of that dawn Bathe[2] in the same cold dew my brow and hair,  And sate as thus upon that slope of lawn 
 Under the self-same bough, and heard as there The birds, the fountains and the ocean hold Sweet talk in music through the enamoured air, And then a vision on my train was rolled.  
 ... 
 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 summer's 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 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[3] 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[4]
 With overarching elms and caverns cold, And violet banks where sweet dreams brood, but they Pursued their serious folly as of old. 
 And as I gazed, methought that in the way The throng grew wilder, as the woods of June  When the south wind shakes the extinguished day, 
 And a cold glare, intenser than the noon, But icy cold, obscured with blinding light The sun, as he the stars. Like the young moon- 
 When on the sunlit limits of the night  Her white shell trembles amid crimson air, And whilst the sleeping tempest gathers might- 
 Doth, as the herald of its coming, bear The ghost of its dead mother, whose dim form[5] Bends in dark aether from her infant's chair,-  
 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. Upon the chariot-beam[6] A Janus-visaged Shadow did assume 
 The guidance of that wonder-winged team;  The shapes which drew it[7] in thick lightenings Were lost:-I heard alone on the air's soft stream 
 The music of their ever-moving wings. All the four faces of that Charioteer Had their eyes banded; little profit brings  
 Speed in the van and blindness in the rear, Nor then avail the beams that quench the sun,- Or that with banded eyes could pierce the sphere 
 Of all that is, has been or will be done; So ill was the car guided-but it passed  With solemn speed majestically on. 
 The crowd gave way, and I arose aghast, Or seemed to rise, so mighty was the trance, And saw, like clouds upon the thunder-blast,[8]
 The million with fierce song and maniac dance  Raging around-such seemed the jubilee As when to greet some conqueror's advance[9]
 Imperial Rome poured forth her living sea From senate-house, and forum, and theatre, When ... upon the free  
 Had bound a yoke, which soon they stooped to bear. Nor wanted here the just similitude Of a triumphal pageant, for where'er 
 The chariot rolled, a captive multitude Was driven;-all those who had grown old in power  Or misery,-all who had their age subdued 
 By action or by suffering, and whose hour Was drained to its last sand in weal or woe, So that the trunk survived both fruit and flower;- 
 All those whose fame or infamy must grow  Till the great winter lay the form and name Of this green earth with them for ever low;- 
 All but the sacred few who could not tame Their spirits to the conquerors[10]-but as soon As they had touched the world with living flame,  
 Fled back like eagles to their native noon, Or those who put aside the diadem Of earthly thrones or gems... 
 Were there, of Athens or Jerusalem. Were neither mid the mighty captives seen,  Nor mid the ribald crowd that followed them, 
 Nor those who went before fierce and obscene. The wild dance maddens in the van, and those Who lead it-fleet as shadows on the green, 
 Outspeed the chariot, and without repose  Mix with each other in tempestuous measure To savage music, wilder as it grows, 
 They, tortured by their agonizing pleasure, Convulsed and on the rapid whirlwinds spun Of that fierce Spirit, whose unholy leisure  
 Was soothed by mischief since the world begun, Throw back their heads and loose their streaming hair; And in their dance round her who dims the sun, 
 Maidens and youths fling their wild arms in air As their feet twinkle; they recede, and now  Bending within each other's atmosphere, 
 Kindle invisibly-and as they glow, Like moths by light attracted and repelled, Oft to their bright destruction come and go, 
 Till like two clouds into one vale impelled,  That shake the mountains when their lightnings mingle And die in rain-the fiery band which held 
 Their natures, snaps-while[11] the shock still may tingle One falls and then another in the path Senseless-nor is the desolation single,  
 Yet ere I can say WHERE-the chariot hath Passed over them-nor other trace I find But as of foam after the ocean's wrath 
 Is spent upon the desert shore;-behind, Old men and women foully disarrayed,  Shake their gray hairs in the insulting wind, 
 And follow in the dance,[12] with limbs decayed, Seeking[13] to reach the light which leaves them still Farther behind and deeper in the shade. 
 But not the less with impotence of will  They wheel, though ghastly shadows interpose Round them and round each other, and fulfil 
 Their work, and in the dust from whence they rose Sink, and corruption veils them as they lie, And past in these performs what ... in those.  
 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!'-I turned, and knew  (O Heaven, have mercy on such wretchedness!) 
 That what I thought was an old root which grew To strange distortion out of the hill side, Was indeed one of those deluded crew, 
 And that the grass, which methought hung so wide  And white, was but his thin discoloured hair, And that the holes he vainly sought to hide, 
 Were or had been eyes:-'If thou canst[14] forbear To join the dance, which I had well forborne,'[15] Said the grim Feature,[16] of my thought aware,[17]
 'I will unfold that which to this deep scorn Led me and my companions, and relate The progress of the pageant since the morn; 
 'If thirst of knowledge shall not then abate, Follow it thou even to the night, but I  Am weary.'-Then like one who with the weight 
 Of his own words is staggered, wearily He paused; and ere he could resume, I cried: 'First, who art thou?'-'Before thy memory, 
 'I feared, loved, hated, suffered, did and died,  And if the spark with which Heaven lit my spirit Had been with purer nutriment[18] supplied, 
 'Corruption would not now thus much inherit Of what was once Rousseau,-nor this disguise Stain[19] that which ought to have disdained to wear it;  
 'If I have been extinguished, yet there rise A thousand beacons from the spark I bore'- 'And who are those chained to the car?'-'The wise, 
 'The great, the unforgotten,-they who wore Mitres and helms and crowns, or wreaths of light,  Signs of thought's empire over thought-their lore 
 'Taught them not this, to know themselves; their might Could not repress the mystery within, And for the morn of truth they feigned, deep night 
 'Caught them ere evening.'-'Who is he with chin  Upon his breast, and hands crossed on his chain?'- 'The child of a fierce hour; he sought to win 
 'The world, and lost all that it did contain Of greatness, in its hope destroyed; and more Of fame and peace than virtue's self can gain  
 'Without the opportunity which bore Him on its eagle pinions to the peak From which a thousand climbers have before 
 'Fallen, as Napoleon fell.'-I felt my cheek Alter, to see the shadow pass away,  Whose grasp had left the giant world so weak 
 That every pigmy kicked it as it lay; 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; and for despair I half disdained mine eyes' desire to fill 
 With the spent vision of the times that were And scarce have ceased to be.-'Dost thou behold,' Said my[20] guide, 'those spoilers spoiled, Voltaire,  
 'Frederick, and Paul, Catherine, and Leopold, And hoary anarchs, demagogues, and sage- names which the[21] world thinks always old, 
 'For in the battle Life and they did wage, She remained conqueror. I was overcome  By my own heart alone, which neither age, 
 'Nor tears, nor infamy, nor now the tomb Could temper to its object.'-'Let them pass,' I cried, 'the world and its mysterious doom 
 'Is not so much more glorious than it was,  That 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, paint them as you may; We have but thrown, as those before us threw,  
 'Our shadows on it as it passed away. But mark how[22] chained to the triumphal chair The mighty phantoms of an elder day; 
 'All that is mortal of great Plato there Expiates the joy and woe his master knew not;  The star that ruled his doom was far too fair. 
 'And life, where long that flower of Heaven grew not, Conquered that heart by love, which gold, or pain, Or age, or sloth, or slavery could subdue not. 
 'And near him[23] walk the ... twain,  The tutor and his pupil, whom Dominion Followed as tame as vulture in a chain. 
 'The world was darkened beneath either pinion Of him whom from the flock of conquerors Fame singled out for[24] her thunder-bearing minion;  
 'The other long outlived both woes and wars, Throned in the thoughts of men, and still had kept The jealous key of Truth's eternal doors, 
 'If Bacon's eagle spirit had not lept Like lightning out of darkness-he compelled  The Proteus shape of Nature, as it slept 
 'To wake, and lead him to the caves that held The treasure of the secrets of its reign. See the great bards of elder time, who quelled 
 'The passions which they sung, as by their strain  May well be known: their living melody Tempers its own contagion to the vein 
 'Of those who are infected with it-I Have suffered what I wrote, or viler pain! And so my words have seeds of misery-  
 'Even as the deeds of others, not as theirs.' And then he pointed to a company,[25]
 'Midst whom I quickly recognized the heirs Of Caesar's crime, from him to Constantine; The anarch chiefs, whose force and murderous snares  
 Had founded many a sceptre-bearing line, And spread the plague of gold and blood abroad: And Gregory and John, and men divine, 
 Who rose like shadows between man and God; Till that eclipse, still hanging over heaven,  Was worshipped by the world o'er which they strode, 
 For the true sun it quenched-'Their power was given But to destroy,' replied the leader:-'I Am one of those who have created, even 
 'If it be but a world of agony.'-  'Whence camest[26] thou? and whither goest thou? How did thy course begin?' I said, 'and why? 
 'Mine eyes are sick of this perpetual flow Of people, and my heart sick of one sad thought- Speak!'-'Whence I am, I partly seem to know,  
 'And how and by what paths I have been brought To this dread pass, methinks even thou mayst guess;- Why this should be, my mind can compass not; 
 'Whither the conqueror hurries me, still less;- But follow thou, and from spectator turn  Actor or victim in this wretchedness, 
 'And what thou wouldst be taught I then may learn From thee. Now listen:-In the April prime, When all the forest-tips began to burn 
 'With kindling green, touched by the azure clime  Of the young season,[27] I was laid asleep Under a mountain, which from unknown time 
 'Had yawned into a cavern, high and deep; And from it came a gentle rivulet, Whose water, like clear air, in its calm sweep  
 'Bent the soft grass, and kept for ever wet The stems of the sweet flowers, and filled the grove With sounds, which whoso hears must needs forget 
 'All pleasure and all pain, all hate and love, Which they had known before that hour of rest;  A sleeping mother then would dream not of 
 'Her only child who died upon the[28] breast At eventide-a king would mourn no more The crown of which his brows were dispossessed 
 'When the sun lingered o'er his ocean floor  To gild his rival's new prosperity. 'Thou wouldst forget thus vainly to deplore 
 'Ills, which if ills can find no cure from thee, The thought of which no other sleep will quell, Nor other music blot from memory,  
 'So sweet and deep is the oblivious spell; And whether life had been before that sleep The Heaven which I imagine, or a Hell 
 'Like this harsh world in which I woke[29] to weep, I know not. I arose, and for a space  The scene of woods and waters seemed to keep, 
 Though it was now broad day, a gentle trace Of light diviner than the common sun Sheds on the common earth, and all the place 
 'Was filled with magic sounds woven into one  Oblivious melody, confusing sense Amid the gliding waves and shadows dun; 
 'And, as I looked, the bright omnipresence Of morning through the orient cavern flowed, And the sun's image radiantly intense  
 'Burned on the waters of the well that glowed Like gold, and threaded all the forest's maze With winding paths of emerald fire; there stood 
 'Amid the sun, as he amid the blaze  Of his own glory, on the vibrating Floor of the fountain, paved with flashing rays, 
 'A Shape all light, which with one hand did fling Dew on the earth, as if she were the dawn, And the invisible rain did ever sing 
 'A silver music on the mossy lawn;  And still before me on the dusky grass, Iris her many-coloured scarf had drawn: 
 'In her right hand she bore a crystal glass, Mantling with bright Nepenthe; the fierce splendour Fell from her as she moved under the mass  
 'Of the deep cavern, and[30] with palms so tender, Their tread broke not the mirror of its billow, Glided[31] along the river, and did bend her 
 'Head under the dark boughs, till like a willow Her fair hair swept the bosom of the stream  That whispered with delight to be its pillow. 
 'As one enamoured is upborne in dream O'er lily-paven lakes, mid silver mist To wondrous music, so this shape might seem 
 'Partly to tread the waves with feet which kissed  The dancing foam; partly to glide along The air which roughened the moist amethyst, 
 'Or the faint morning beams that fell among The trees, or the soft shadows of the trees; And her feet, ever to the ceaseless song  
 'Of leaves, and winds, and waves, and birds, and bees, And falling drops, moved in[32] a measure new Yet sweet, as on the summer evening breeze, 
 'Up from the lake a shape of golden dew Between two rocks, athwart the rising moon,  Dances i' the wind, where never eagle flew; 
 'And still her feet, no less than the sweet tune To which they moved, seemed as they moved to blot The thoughts of him who gazed on them; and soon 
 'All that was, seemed as if it had been not;  And all the gazer's mind was strewn beneath Her feet like embers; and she, thought by thought, 
 'Trampled its sparks into the dust of death As day upon the threshold of the east Treads out the lamps of night, until the breath  
 'Of darkness re-illumine even the least Of heaven's living eyes-like day she came, Making the night a dream; and ere she ceased 
 'To move, as one between desire and shame Suspended, I said-If, as it doth seem,  Thou comest from the realm without a name 
 'Into this valley of perpetual dream, Show whence I came, and where I am, and why- Pass not away upon the passing stream. 
 'Arise and quench thy thirst, was her reply.  And as a shut lily stricken by the wand Of dewy morning's vital alchemy, 
 'I rose; and, bending at her sweet command, Touched with faint lips the cup she raised, And suddenly my brain became as sand  
 'Where the first wave had more than half erased The track of deer on desert Labrador; Whilst the wolf, from which they fled amazed, 
 'Leaves his stamp visibly upon the shore, Until the second bursts;-so on my sight  Burst a new vision, never seen before, 
 'And the fair shape waned in the coming light, As veil by veil the silent splendour drops From Lucifer, amid the chrysolite 
 'Of sunrise, ere it tinge the mountain-tops;  And as the presence of that fairest planet, Although unseen, is felt by one who hopes 
 'That his day's path may end as he began it, In that star's smile, whose light is like the scent Of a jonquil when evening breezes fan it,  
 'Or the soft note in which his dear lament The Brescian shepherd breathes,[33] or the caress That turned his weary slumber to content; 
 'So knew I in that light's severe excess The presence of that Shape which on the stream  Moved, as I moved along the wilderness, 
 'More dimly than a day-appearing dream, The host of a forgotten form of sleep; A light of heaven, whose half-extinguished beam 
 'Through the sick day in which we wake to weep  Glimmers, for ever sought, for ever lost; So did that shape its obscure tenour keep 
 'Beside my path, as silent as a ghost; But the new Vision, and the cold bright car, With solemn speed and stunning music, crossed  
 'The forest, and as if from some dread war Triumphantly returning, the loud million Fiercely extolled the fortune of her star. 
 'A moving arch of victory, the vermilion And green and azure plumes of Iris had  Built high over her wind-winged pavilion, 
 'And underneath aethereal glory clad The wilderness, and far before her flew The tempest of the splendour, which forbade 
 'Shadow to fall from leaf and stone; the crew  Seemed in that light, like atomies to dance Within a sunbeam;-some upon the new 
 'Embroidery of flowers, that did enhance The grassy vesture of the desert, played, Forgetful of the chariot's swift advance;  
 'Others stood gazing, till within the shade Of the great mountain its light left them dim; Others outspeeded it; and others made 
 'Circles around it, like the clouds that swim Round the high moon in a bright sea of air;  And more did follow, with exulting hymn, 
 'The chariot and the captives fettered there:- But all like bubbles on an eddying flood Fell into the same track at last, and were 
 'Borne onward.-I among the multitude  Was swept-me, sweetest flowers delayed not long; Me, not the shadow nor the solitude; 
 'Me, not that falling stream's Lethean song; Me, not the phantom of that early[34] Form Which moved upon its motion-but among  
 'The thickest billows of that living storm I plunged, and bared my bosom to the clime Of that cold light, whose airs too soon deform. 
 'Before the chariot had begun to climb The opposing steep of that mysterious dell,  Behold a wonder worthy of the rhyme 
 'Of him who from the 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;[35] the wondrous story  How all things are transfigured except Love; For deaf as is a sea, which wrath makes hoary, 
 'The world can hear not the sweet notes that move The sphere whose light is melody to lovers- A wonder worthy of his rhyme.-The grove  
 'Grew dense with shadows to its inmost covers, The earth was gray with phantoms, and the air Was peopled with dim forms, as when there hovers 
 'A flock of vampire-bats before the glare Of the tropic sun, bringing, ere evening,  Strange night upon some Indian isle;[36]-thus were 
 'Phantoms diffused around; and some did fling Shadows of shadows, yet unlike themselves, Behind them; some like eaglets on the wing 
 'Were lost in the white day; others like elves  Danced in a thousand unimagined shapes Upon the sunny streams and grassy shelves; 
 'And others sate chattering like restless apes On vulgar hands,... Some made a cradle of the ermined capes  
 'Of kingly mantles; some across the tiar Of pontiffs sate[37] like vultures; others played Under the crown which girt with empire 
 'A baby's or an idiot's brow, and made Their nests in it. The old anatomies  Sate hatching their bare broods under the shade 
 'Of daemon wings, and laughed from their dead eyes To reassume the delegated power, Arrayed in which those worms did monarchize, 
 'Who made this earth their charnel. Others more  Humble, like falcons, sate upon the fist Of common men, and round their heads did soar; 
 Or like small gnats and flies, as thick as mist On evening marshes, thronged about the brow Of lawyers, statesmen, priest and theorist;-  
 'And others, like discoloured flakes of snow On fairest bosoms and the sunniest hair, Fell, and were melted by the youthful glow 
 'Which they extinguished; and, like tears, they were A veil to those[38] from whose faint lids they rained  In drops of sorrow. I became aware 
 'Of whence those forms proceeded which thus stained The track in which we moved. After brief space, From every form the beauty slowly waned; 
 'From every firmest limb and fairest face  The strength and freshness fell like dust, and left The action and the shape without the grace 
 'Of life. The marble brow of youth was cleft With care; and in those eyes where once hope shone, Desire, like a lioness bereft  
 'Of her last cub, glared ere it died; each one Of that great crowd sent forth incessantly These shadows, numerous as the dead leaves blown 
 'In autumn evening from a poplar tree.  Each like himself and like each other were At first; but some distorted seemed to be 
 'Obscure clouds, moulded by the casual air; And of this stuff the car's creative ray Wrought[39] all the busy phantoms that were there, 
 'As the sun shapes the clouds; thus on the way  Mask after mask fell from the countenance And form of all; and long before the day 
 'Was old, the joy which waked like heaven's glance The sleepers in the oblivious valley, died; 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.'-