The Dark Side of the Light: The Triumph of Love in Shelley’s The Triumph of Life

This essay challenges Paul de Man’s famous reading of figurality in Percy Shelley’s The Triumph of Life to show how the poem thinks love as a figural-material quantum entanglement between two people that models a new materialist politics. I argue that for Shelley the “shape all light” and its interaction with the rainbow evince one instance of this figural-material phenomenon. This interaction I read as a form of what Karen Barad calls “quantum entanglement,” when the subject and object—as in physics’ double-slit quantum light experiment—emerges as a new entity that brings a novel spacetime into being. As Shelley theorizes it in the poem, this merger of subject and object, or lover and lover, allows him to finally conceive a love that serves as a cornerstone for a radical politics. While we tend to see the poem as breaking off into irresolution, Shelley’s poem, on my reading, instead envisions how two-person spacetimes are a triumph of love over the nihilistic autocratic politics of anarchy that the poem depicts running wild in the pageantry of life.

The Dark Side of the Light: The Triumph of Love in Shelley’s The Triumph of Life

1.        In Paul de Man’s famous reading of Shelley’s The Triumph of Life (1822), "Shelley Disfigured," he identifies the specular, in the imagery of the sun, the light, the water, and the stars as the tropology around which the poem groups its deconstructive figurality. De Man specifically reads the nebulous “shape all light” (356) [1] as “the figure for the figurality of all signification” (116), the textual crux that connects the sun’s light, obscured stars, and water’s well previous to the light’s transmogrification into a rainbow:

“Shape all light” is referentially meaningless since light, the necessary condition of shape, is itself, like water, without shape, and acquires shape only when split in the illusion of a doubleness which is not that of self and other. The sun, in this text, is from the start the figure of this self-contained specularity. But the double of the sun can only be the eye conceived as the mirror of light. “Shape” and “mirror” are inseparable in this scene, just as the sun is inseparable from the shapes it generates and which are, in fact, the eye, and just as the sun is inseparable from itself since it produces the illusion of the self as shape . . . Because the sun is itself a specular structure, the eye can be said to generate a world of natural forms. The otherness of a world that is in fact without order now become, for the eye, a maze made accessible to solar paths, as the eye turns from the blank radiance of the sun to its green and blue reflection in the world, and allows us to be in this world as in a landscape of roads and intents. (109–10)
Yet, surely this account depends on a classic presupposition of high romanticism partially engendered by de Man himself: the eye as necessary for figurality itself, a doubly odd claim since the eye, evidence of human existence, introduces the ontological (“allows us to be”) into de Man’s otherwise properly figural conceptual space, and the anthropocentric into his rhetorical theory of language’s mad, machine-like nature. For it is precisely its linguistic, or what he calls rhetorical—rather than historical, or physical, or ontological—nature that, for de Man, makes figurality figurative. Whether unconsciously or unwittingly—and here we must think of de Man’s own idea of critical blindness—de Man’s deconstruction would appear to deconstruct itself. But perhaps this is only all too appropriate since auto-deconstruction, according to de Man’s reading of Shelley’s poem, and his readings elsewhere of Rousseau, is how deconstruction works. [2] 

2.         In fact, this auto-deconstruction reveals the speculative realist flipside of de Man’s reading of light that we have yet to confront in Shelley’s poem: non-figural, material reality as inter-involved aspect of any figurality. [3]  Speculative realism posits that a world of material objects exists independent of the subject and any epistemological access and phenomenal relationship the subject might have with those objects and that world. And while we typically view de Manian deconstruction as exclusively embrangled in linguistic and epistemological problems properly belonging to the subject, the figurative-material deconstructive paradox detected above allows us to consider how the linguistic subject of deconstruction and the material objects of speculative realism are much more inter-connected in Shelley’s final poem than we think.

3.        Shelley’s notes to Queen Mab (1813) address this paradox: light is not simply reflectively specular as de Man presents it; it is also a material, and, as we’ll see, a quantum, speculative, phenomenon. [4]  Shelley, having read Isaac Newton’s Principia (1726) (which he quotes in his notes), and possibly his Optics (1704), writes that, “the equal diffusion of its light on earth is owing to the refraction of the rays by the atmosphere and their reflection from other bodies. Light consists either of vibrations propagated through a subtle medium or of numerous minute particles repelled in all directions from the luminous body” ("Notes" 239). This last sentence demonstrates Shelley’s awareness of the corpuscularian debates concerning the nature of light, in which Thomas Young’s 1801 double-slit thought experiment complicated Newton’s theory of light as particles by positing that light, depending on the conditions of the experiment, acts as a wave. [5]  Shelley’s careful phrasing, though, investing in neither scientific account, demonstrates a mind determined to speculate on the hither side of known reality, and in The Triumph of Life, his cerebrations on starlight moves past Newton and Young into what we now call quantum physics and speculative realism. By yoking together the scientific, the poetic, and the political The Triumph of Life, I argue, produces a radical politics based on love, one that founds communities rather than the state-of-nature chaos and anarchy of two key interlocutors, Hobbes and Rousseau. Love, folding “its healing wings” over the world at the end of Prometheus Unbound (1820), in a defiant gesture against tyranny, it is suggested, nonetheless tumbles back into “woes . . . Hope thinks infinite,” whereas The Triumph of Life sees love escape such transcendental temporalities altogether (4.570). The love Shelley theorizes through the poetics of star- and day-light in The Triumph of Life is, I will argue, something similar to quantum feminist Karen Barad’s conceptualization of “intra-action,” which allows Shelley to imagine wholly new worlds that this politics of love both brings into being and is brought into being by.

4.        As we know from the spookily Shellyean X-Files, starlight travels billions of years to reach the earth. [6]  Shelley, too, is familiar with starlight’s easy-does-it temporal travel schedule: “some idea may be gained of the immense distance of the fixed stars when it is computed that many years would elapse before light could reach this earth from the nearest of them; yet in one year light travels 5,422,400,000,000 miles, which is at a distance 5,707,600 times greater than that of the sun from the earth” ("Notes" 239). Readings of The Triumph of Life from de Man’s to more recent quantum readings of light in the poem all reference light in its earthly, and so bounded-down, anthropocentric aspect. [7]  But understanding light as discretely deconstructive or materialistic undermines the linguistic-material—and speculative—paradoxical nature of it Shelley develops and deploys in his poem. Indeed, given starlight’s distance from the earth and the human eye, the “I” of both poem and self, need be, and perhaps simply is, of no consequence for what de Man calls, referencing classical antiquity’s theogony, these fallen gods, the stars ("Shelley" 117). Stars, it turns out, are like Transformers, more than meets the eye. The Triumph of Life thus evokes what contemporary speculative realist philosopher, Quentin Meillassoux, calls the “arche-fossil,” nonhuman material or phenomena that evidences life anterior and ulterior to human life because the lifespans of this material phenomena exceeds that of the human species’ lifespan. [8]  As the poem’s speaker says, “the moon . . . obscured with [ ] light / the Sun as he the stars” (77–79). [9]  Starlight, night after night, illustrates the possibility of a world without us even while the next day’s dawning suggests the universe’s apathy to humanity’s endurance since the sunlight obscures by its diffuse rays the always-present stars whose very eternality recollects us to human mortality. Starlight’s apparent spatial absence-as-presence during the day, and its illusory temporal here-ness, suggest an ulteriority beyond the anthropocentric. As I read it, The Triumph of Life thus glimpses the possibility of a post-apocalyptic world existing after we are gone, one glimmering alone, dark, and beautifully desolate in the phosphorescent darkness of starlight.

5.         Yet precisely because of its untimely indifference to humanity’s claim to everlastingness, starlight’s evocation of the way in which the world is always already without us, deflates our transcendental beliefs in the human species’s necessity for earthly survival. If starlight is a temporal, flashing on-and-off indicator of a world always already without us, then it is also a cosmic cautionary tale counterintuitively imploring us to find ways to be-with the other in the time we have left. Confronting finitude, the poem’s speaker and his guide, Rousseau, struggle to understand their stupefied bearing witness to life’s unfolding of the mad chaos of individuals bereft of human connection. As we shall see, on this world without us, love, literally, creates this being-with us, and in the process literally creates new worlds, what Barad’s quantum theory calls new “spacetimes.” More specifically, I suggest that Shelley’s last poem resolutely abandons the skepticism, the idealism, and the transcendentalism variously associated with his poetry and politics. [10]  Shelley scholarship has sometimes had a tendency to read him within a traditional view of Romanticism as apocalyptic, a drive toward a mythic paradise, sometimes manifesting on earth, sometimes beyond it, in an Elysian after-life. [11]  At the same time, many scholars view his later poetry as diverging from his earlier verse; as Jerome McGann noted long ago, “a new and significant impulse was moving his poetry” in this last year of his life (41). But, as I have argued elsewhere, Shelley’s work has never been invested in these apocalyptic fictional fantasies of Paradise. [12]  With the stars as his guiding light, Shelley turns his attention one last time to what has always preoccupied him, post-apocalyptic reality, what happens when the last humans remain (perhaps briefly) on earth.

6.        To engage this post-apocalyptic reality, Shelley imagines a new affective solidarity whose necessity of love is terrestrial, not transcendent. This affinity is more than the self’s search for its own likeness in a copy of itself, as Shelley puts it in "On Love" (circa 1818) (itself a text shot through with the vocabulary of “particles” and “vibrations”), a narcissism that merely replays the egocentric self-love of Shelley’s Rousseauvian nightmare parade in this, his last long poem. Instead, the poem theorizes how love works when life, verging on termination, becomes a more-urgent-than-normal process of perpetual self-inquisition with no answers, exemplified by the poem’s final broken-off question, “Then, what is life?” (544), as well as in Rousseau’s haunted, disconsolate pleas to the “shape all light”: “tell me whence I came, and where, and why” (398). [13]  Shelley’s poem offers no answers to these desperate implorations because, as the poem dramatizes in its staged pageantry of life’s decline and fall into a masquerade of simulacra, to know life definitively would be to circumscribe life within a field of closed possibility, a life, perversely, of no possible continuance, one without the unpredictability of an unknown future for if the future were known life would be over. [14]  This is what Derrida means, in his reading of the poem, by “living on”: life continues only because the future is always here and never here, just like the stars, which have technically not arrived even though we can “see” them (which we really cannot) ("Living" 62). Hence, the poem finds its resolution in the irresolution of its necessary non-answer to its final question, instead asking “what is love?,” a triumph then of love rather than life. And so Shelley’s phantasmatic costume ball—Hazlitt referred to the poem as “a new and terrific The Dance of Death” (494)—theorizes love, not as Derrida does, as a love of ruins because everything falls to ruin, but beyond ruin; and not as de Man’s figure for disfiguration, but as an intra-active figural-materiality that is beyond transfiguration when it manifests as true love. [15]  In its roving disquisition on the quantum nature of light, the poem issues a last call to learn to love freely and fully, to feel, for someone, since this is all the survival we can ultimately have in the time of the present’s apathetic disaster, this time of fallen stars.


7.        Shelley’s poem associates light and its shifting configurations with political factions, the sun serving as anarchy’s herald and the stars’ as love’s harbinger. Although for de Man, “it is unimaginable that Shelley’s non-epic, non-religious poem would begin by elegiacally or rebelliously evoking the tragic defeat of the former gods, the stars, at the hands of the sun” ("Shelley" 117), what he terms “the unimaginable” is, rather, easily imagined, for the poem’s opening stages this battle precisely by not ascribing mythological god-like significance to the stars. In Shelley’s hands, they become significant framing devices of the poem’s political allegorization, linking patriarchal politics to the poetics of sunrise:

Swift as a spirit hastening to his task
Of glory & of good, the Sun sprang forth
Rejoicing in his splendour, & the mask
Of darkness fell from the awakened Earth.
The smokeless altars of the mountain snows
Flamed above crimson clouds, & 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,
Swinging their censers in the element,
With orient incense lit by the new ray
Burned slow & inconsumably, & sent
Their odorous sighs up to the smiling air,
And in succession due, did Continent,
Isle, Ocean, & all things that in them wear
The form & 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 & 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, & 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
And then a Vision on my brain was rolled (1–33, 40)
The immediate opposition of the sun and the stars reverses the teleology of disaster, which derives from the Latin “astar”—which means disaster is literally a fallen star—by equating it to sunlight instead, the wellspring of earthly life, the figural-material alternative to sunlight’s figural masculinist power. Unlike the later feminized “shape all light,” the sun’s light is associated with the law of the father, which thus links it to the parade of “Anarchs old” (285) who signify destructive authoritarianism and tyrannical despotism. Dissociated from the sun, the speaker’s reflective thoughts, “which must remain untold,” stem specifically from “the stars that gem.” Only as the sun tears away the night’s mask does the speaker awaken from his sleepless reverie in the nighttime to the fantastic visions, and ill slumber, of the light of the day. Sunlight thus suggests veil-rending violence and the observationally specular, even as the stars are avatars of a gentle tranquility, a paradoxical sleep so peaceful it requires not the unconsciousness of sleep but hazy wakefulness. This wakefulness is different still from the wakeful sleep of day that brings with it Rousseau’s phantasmagoria of moral, cultural, and physical abominations bombinating in their own Bacchanal, thanatopolitical excess. Nighttime’s wakefulness, in contrast, like the stars, is not specular but speculatively realist, the imagining of some world we cannot envision or comprehend since it seems to exist beyond us, a signal fire guiding us through the dark to the shape all light.

8.         Whereas for de Man the sun usurps natural, chronological progression—and thus renders historical progress always a matter of absolute contingency through its disfiguration—the sun’s sudden appearance manifests a different, decisively material event. As the editors of the Norton Shelley remind us, the line “the stars . . . gem the cone of night” refers to an actual, rather than figural, shadow that the earth casts as a result of its orbitational locality in relation to the sun. The poem fixes the earth’s physical coordinates, evoking Newton’s own “System of the World,” even as its opening passage works by prosopopoeia, personification, and apostrophe, which figure what de Man calls “the master trope of poetry” ("Hypogram" 48). Sun, stars, sky, earth, light and shadows, are all both figural and material.

9.         Later in the poem, this twinning of figurality and materiality becomes more confused and confusing by aligning the sun with the political faction of anarchism, linked to a figurality disconnected from the material world, that Shelley hopes to defeat. [16]  Attempting to reassure the ghost of Rousseau, the speaker contrasts the concrete (though bloody) results of his revolution-galvinizing works to the pointlessly cruel despotism of the Anarchs:

"Not as theirs,"
I said—he pointed to a company
In which I recognized amid the heirs
Of Caesar's crime from him to Constantine,
The Anarchs old whose force & murderous snares
Had founded many a sceptre bearing line
And spread the plague of blood & gold abroad,
And Gregory & John and men divine
Who rose like shadows between Man & god
Till that eclipse, still hanging under Heaven,
Was worshipped by the world o'er which they strode
For the true Sun it quenched. (281–92)
The passage twists post-apocalyptically, the sun of the law of the father with which the poem opens obscuring and rebuffing the true sun of reality. Caesar and Constantine, Gregory and John, rise like a false eclipse between the world and the Sun even as the Sun, by its very nature, is part of this eclipse. Enacting the end of the world, the sun blots out not just the stars, but itself, the sun, the true son, light of all light, signaling that the world will literally end as a direct result of the sun’s parenting of a political anarchism with heliocentric destruction on its anthropocentric mind. Rousseau’s visions, like the poem itself, therefore figure state-of-nature tales told by Hobbesian warmongers that culminate with humanity’s extinction. Confronted with the spectacle of all these pale-horse death-dealers, it is perhaps no wonder that, as Hugh Roberts remarks, “in the pageant of life it is love, above all, that the narrator and Rousseau as abstract spectators seem least able to comprehend” (403).

10.         To check the ontological cosmic disaster of the sun’s quenching extinction at its own patriarchal hands, Shelley, counterintuitively, reclaims the stars not as post-apocalyptic predictors of imminent disaster, as gestured to in his notes to Queen Mab, but instead as love’s material register:

“All that is mortal of great Plato there
Expiates the joy & woe his master knew not;
That star that ruled his doom was far too fair—
"And Life, where long that flower of Heaven grew not,
Conquered the heart by love which gold or pain
Or age or sloth or slavery could subdue not. (254–59)
Shelley’s pun on Plato’s lover, “Aster,” Greek for both “star” and “flower,” transforms disaster into life’s flower of heaven that is love. [17]  Similarly, the “shape all light” later sketches, via what Dante brings up from the dark with him, a familiar romantic account of paradise:
“Of him whom from the lowest depths of Hell
Through every Paradise & through all glory
Love led serene, & who returned to tell
“In words of hate & awe the wondrous story
How all things are transfigured, except Love” (472–76).
With the speculative possibility of extinction, and the impending possibility of the world’s doom, love emerges as a non-transfigurable element in a political and materialist table of potential calamities. The stars, via Aster, and the flowers of heaven, imagine love in a post-apocalyptic reality we must grapple with in response to these apocalyptic dreams that delude us with hopes of a perfected world. This love shows and accepts that these fallen and falling stars of both disaster and humankind are neither here nor there but still falling, unlocatable in space or time. Hence, the stars, as they appear here, stand as more than a figure for love: for love is a figure beyond figuration, and so not just figural, but something real, both figural and material, what Karen Barad calls an “intra-active” phenomenon.

11.        Kate Singer’s recent turn to feminist quantum theory and its investment in nonhuman materiality provides an example of how we can move beyond a singular focus on figurality ("Limpid Waves"). Barad’s theory allows us to understand how in the shape all light subject and object are mutually constitutive of “quantum entanglement.” [18]  Crucially, within entanglement relata do not precede relations; rather each new intra-action manifests a new relation between the discursive and the material, the subject and object. Barad’s development of this idea calls into question the up-to-now predominant linguistic turn that understands both the subject and object to be discursive constructs.

12.        Barad borrows Donna Haraway’s use of the term “diffraction” as a helpful way to understand quantum entanglement. She glosses Haraway as follows: “diffraction can serve as a useful counterpoint to reflection: both are optical phenomena, but whereas the metaphor of reflection reflects the themes of mirroring and sameness, diffraction is marked by patterns of difference” (71). Barad emphasizes how diffraction expands the circle of difference away from reflective homologies of self and love that we can see Shelley, for instance, presenting in "On Love." The point, for Barad, is to increase difference rather than curtail it, as reflection does. Extending Haraway’s usage, Barad’s diffraction becomes a metaphor for understanding both ontological difference as well as physical phenomena. Barad’s reading of diffraction in Niels Bohrs’ famous restaging of Young’s two-slit experiment, evidences this quantum paradox: a particle of light, when shined through a diffraction pattern grating, presents as either a wave or a particle. According to Newtonian physics, such a result is impossible, since “only waves produce diffraction patterns; particles do not (since they cannot occupy the same place at the same time)” (81). As Barad argues, this diffracted phenomena illustrates quantum entanglement since the production of matter as diffractal waves and particles depends on the entanglement of the subject, the apparatus (the diffracting grate), and matter itself. That is, only this particular intersection of subject (experimenter) and object (matter) produces particle-wave duality. For Barad this phenomenon means “that entanglements are highly specific configurations . . . [that] . . . change with each intra-action. In fact is it not so much that they change from one moment to the next or from one place to another, but that space, time, and matter do not exist prior to the intra-actions that reconstitute entanglements” (74; emphasis added). The consequences of Barad’s development of quantum entanglement are therefore astonishing since they challenge, and even dismiss, contemporary humanistic and scientific accounts of how space, time, and, matter, and hence subjects and objects, exist in reality. By manifesting a new spacetime in each entanglement, different spaces and times, quantum entanglement alters the very ways in which we understand ontology for humans: the world only exists in a non-fixed—indeed non-existent—space and time repeatedly created by the production of new spacetime worlds that are, in turn, created simultaneously by newly created subjects and objects. And since entanglement instantiates space and time new worlds are made with each entanglement even if these are not, properly speaking, between subject and object or subject and subject since all of these terms are now constantly being brought into existence with each iterative entanglement.

13.        In Barad’s theory, it is only posterior to entanglement—and hence their existence—that manufactured (what she calls) “cuts” occur between intra-active agential subjects and materialities to produce discrete, identifiable “subjects” and “objects.” “Cuts” are thus social constructions that proceed from, rather than precede, the ontological origins of subjects and objects, just like the masks that “fell from the countenance / And form of all” at poem’s end, exemplify how wearing a person suit can falsely fashion oneself as an un-entangled “subject” (536–37). By de-masking the simulacra we don in the world, quantum entanglement undoes notions of the subject and object as independent agencies. Instead, the material world, which on speculative accounts exists apart for us is, actually, always already with us until we enact the artificial cuts that cleave a given entanglement. Similarly, the shape all light, linguistically personifying a quantum materiality, radically confounds our ability to conceive of subjects and objects as originarily distinguishable, a con-fused phenomenon that explicates the narrator’s, and Rousseau’s, own confused reaction to the shape. In proffering Rousseau nepenthe, the shape all light obliterates his mind as sand, which indicates the dissolution of the subject as model of and for human discursive epistemology and ontological prioritization as distinct from nonhuman materiality. Whereas Rousseau viewed himself through the aperture of his subjectivity, rather like being cut out with a cookie cutter, the shape all light illuminates the post-cuts that take place after entanglement.

14.        The shape all light, an exemplar of discursive-material quantum entanglement, renders visible a post-social-contract politics that usurps the normative sociopolitical order of “the Anarchs.” In "The Mask of Anarchy" (1832) for Shelley, such figures reveal paradise as an apocalyptic sleight-of-hand that conceals Hobbesian pale riders trampling on all life:

“Last came Anarchy; he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood
He was pale even to the lips
Like Death in the Apocalypse” (30–31).
In The Triumph, however, love, and not death, nurtures hope of a post-apocalyptic life predicated on revealing love as more than ephemeral feeling, love as, rather, both the material force and the intra-action between subject and object as they are brought into being for the first time in a newly created space and time that is the process of their intra-action. Whereas the poem begins by thinking light in terms of a cruel politics of oppression, the shape all light provides an antidote to this poisonous politics. [19]  Light then shifts its subject-object interface yet again to position starlight as more than the blinking signal of human extinction, a phenomena that entangles humans in material love, refiguring, rather than disfiguring (as for de Man), and iterating, ever new entanglements.

15.        Moving us away from anthropocentric epistemology to posthuman ontology, then, the discursive-material figure of the shape all light, differentiating itself from the sun, returns us to the quantum and its creation of spacetime, when it becomes a rainbow touching, melding with, the forest floor. Rainbows appear in the sky—for a rainbow is not, of course, any more than the stars, actually in the sky—when water droplets reflect, refract, and disperse in the air. As Barad explains, reflection is not merely specular but also occurs by diffraction, which is what happens when one type of light “bends” upon encountering another medium thus increasing or decreasing its wavelength. Shelley limns quantum reality in the rainbow’s ghostly radiance:

“Of the deep cavern, & with palms so tender
Their tread broke not the mirror of its billow
Glided 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 their pillow.” (361–66)
Mark Lussier and Arkady Plotnitsky have both noted the quantum language rolling through the placidly pillowing water in this passage. But Barad’s reconceptualization of quantum matter as entangling the subject and object in a space and time of their own making in an act of creative simultaneity, reveals a much bolder, and as we’ll see, politically radical Shelley than either Lussier’s or Plotnitsky’s classical quantum accounts allow for. The steady, exact rhyme scheme (“willow,” “billow,” and “pillow”) maintains the rainbow’s illusory essence, an assonance that reflects the reflection of the water and hoodwinks us into reading the passage as an instance of classical quantum mechanics—the water rolls on naturally just like the end sounds in space and time understood as locational end points. But the poem acknowledges the quantum diffraction of the water when the personified shape all light “bend[s] her / Head under the dark boughs, till like a willow / Her fair hair swept the bosom of the stream” (363–65). The shape reverse personifies the stream even as the shape all light itself becomes this stream in the emergence from the water of the light’s skyward-arcing rainbow that occurs because of both its reflection and diffraction in that water (since a rainbow can only occur by diffraction). Both material and figurative, the shape all light becomes now something else altogether again as it is entangled with the water in a flowing measure of eddying hair and chromatic illusion. The rainbow thus recalls us to the other side of the specular coin: the human observer who can see what does not exist, a unique form of, to repurpose de Man’s universally explanatory phrase of deconstructive rhetoricity, “blindness and insight.” For Shelley knows that rainbows are both material phenomena and optical illusions that both do and do not exist as tactile material in spatial reality: you both can and cannot touch and see a rainbow. Shelley’s rainbow is a diffraction, then, that makes a difference for in this passage Shelley reminds us that the figural and the material, the subject and object, can only be cleaved after their moment of entangled becoming.

16.        For despite the rainbow’s illusory nature it does exist even it if cannot be touched by the speaker or seen for what it really is, a chromatic spectrum of moisture and dust fronting the sky. As such, it exemplifies the poem’s speculative ontological paradox since optical illusions require a perceiving subject, whose senses can be deceived by discrete objects (as Rousseau recounts to the speaker, while witnessing this scene, he was baffled and unable to comprehend not only its meaning but even what was actually occurring). So, on one hand, the human subject aestheticizes a material, ontological phenomenon, epistemologically constructing it as one thing understandable to the human mind, when it actually is something more diffractedly unknowable. On the other hand, the rainbow’s very material nature, its optical illusoriness, demonstrates how irrevocably blurred and smeared together the subject and object are. Just as we re-ontologize the rainbow as something it is not, so does the rainbow’s illusoriness re-ontologize humans by pointing out that humans are capable of being fooled by a world we think we command. In this sense, like the speaker and Rousseau, we are anthropocentric Anarchs and must be taught, by the poem’s quantum theory of love, to kick away the ladder of this anarchism we have climbed up. This is another of example of why, as Julie Carlson remarks, “a major impediment to adopting a Shelleyan practice of love is the difficulty of seeing what he is talking about” (76). The rainbow, we might say, is a weird type of material personification: by converting it from dust particles to this thing we call a rainbow, we make what cannot be seen seeable: we remake it in human terms as something that can be seen on human terms. In making the rainbow seeable, and making ourselves see it, the rainbow, a material smattering of particles, comes into discursive being literally in a space and time in which it actually ontologically exists but that also does not exist until it is entangled with the human. In turn, humans’ own subjectivity undergoes a radicalized becoming as the material reality of this optical illusion turns human eyes inside out to see what they cannot see. Reality literally gets made as real precisely because of, paradoxically, both its realness and non-realness—which are both made by the other at the same time. This is the lesson of the rainbow shape all light which makes “all that was [seem] as if it had been not” (385). Beliefs in human deterministic and constructivist powers fall away somewhere over the rainbow, a place and time that, with no fixed locative or temporal junction without this human and nonhuman entanglement, serves as a reminder that we have far surpassed Newtonian mechanical accounts of the world and even contemporary quantum accounts of the world. The rainbow and the human subject intra-act, demonstrating, together, how subjects and objects are entangled in the creation of their own world.


17.        Then the poem materializes a new entanglement. The weird intra-active subject-object agency of the rainbow becomes a type of post-apocalyptic spatio-temporality when Shelley reveals that the rainbow’s shape all light is not just electromagnetic radiation and optical illusion but also starlight. Like starlight, the rainbow shape will turn us back to love:

“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—
As if the gazer’s mind was strewn beneath
Her feet like embers, & she, thought by thought
“Trampled its fires into the dust of death
As Day upon the threshold of the east
Treads out the lamps of night, until the breath
“Of darkness reillumines even the least
Of heaven's living eyes—like day she came
Making the night a dream. (383–93)
Although metaphorically like “heaven’s living eyes,” the stars that “reillumine” the darkness, the shape all light is also like the day, only here she functions as the true day, the feminine sun of no father, sun and not a son. She represents, then, a revolutionary, feminized, quantum truth, the light of the stars and true day that can politically rebel against the false sons of false suns. This revolution gets televised when the shape all light, now revealed as a late-arriving star, in an extraordinary gesture of post-apocalyptic power, tramples out human thought in order to remind it of its own mortal brevity in the face of the billions-of-years lifespan of the universe. And the shape joins “Lucifer,” the masculine light bringer, what de Man questionably reads as “metaphor,” to the rainbow’s feminine quantum materialism. This intra-active relational conflux, a marriage of starlight’s optics with the rainbow’s illusory effect, diffracts humans’ self-regard as rulers of the earth, the impolite fiction of an impolitic politics that renders us all anthropocentric anarchs. Like the rainbow, the stars always exist, but only always exist as we “see” them once we do not see them.

18.        The shape all light opposes the light of the patriarchal sons of anarchy, guiding us, as love guides Dante out of fire and flame into paradise, towards the new forms of being love’s post-apocalyptic politics guarantees. After Rousseau drinks the nepenthe, he experiences, as he says, “a new Vision never seen before” in which the shape all light “waned in the coming light / as veil by veil the silent splendour drops / from Lucifer, amid the chrysolite / of sunrise” (411–20). The Morningstar, Lucifer, evanesces the shape all light, even as the doubling “of that fairest planet,” Venus, doubles Lucifer as the Eveningstar, twinning the morning to the night, to “that star’s smile” (419). Yet this star’s light “is like the scent / Of a jonquil when evening breezes fan it” (420). The simile repurposes morning light’s (Lucifer) and evening light’s (Venus) ethereal early-morning meeting as a meeting of reflection, for the jonquil is also known as “narcissus,” recalling us to Narcissus and the poem’s enemy, self-love. Lucifer, when he looks in the depths of fading night, sees his own face reflected back in the star’s millions-year-long Cheshire smile. The shape all light, however, despite its evanescence, nonetheless remains present, intra-acting with Rousseau’s materialistic speaker-companion, sidestepping the sun’s and the star’s egoistic cybernetic loop of self-love.

19.        This is what makes this vision so powerfully, diffractedly, different: it is an instance of entanglement between the shape all light and Rousseau, who both now only begin to exist because they journey forward through the darkness that is light, an entangled phenomenon that signals an entire reorientation of how we understand the human in relation to the material. Rousseau, as both a material tree stump and a discursive subject, is already imbricated with the material world but here enters into a new entanglement with light. The word “knew,” which signals epistemology, is undercut by the ontological yoke of the “shape” that “moved, as I moved” combining the human and nonhuman, entangling the material and the figural: “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” (424–26; emphasis added). A cascade of imagery captures the shape’s “presence”:

“More dimly than a day appearing dream
The ghost of a forgotten form of sleep
A light from heaven whose half extinguished beam
Through the sick day in which we wake to weep
Glimmers, forever sought, forever lost.” (426–31)
Like the day and night of dream and wakefulness divided by the absent-present stars with which the poem opens, the shape all light seems to exist as both presence and absence, the momentary difference between the time of day’s giving way to night and vice versa—a moment that is “forever sought, forever lost,” pure day separated from pure night, each uninterrupted, exorbitant from its opposite, forever sought and lost because day and night are forever blended in the other. Space and time get remade in the shape all light as neither day nor night, sun nor star, and hence by exceeding the time of day and night the shape creates a non-anthropocentric world since day and night are human inventions. Like the stars that remain in the sky obscured by the sun (77–79), the shape all light appears as both material real shape and its own ghost, just as Rousseau himself lives only partially, neither dead nor alive: “so did that shape its obscure tenour keep” (432). The shape all light, in keeping its musical voice (“tenour”) level yet also obscure, becomes one with Rousseau, his material ghost just as Rousseau is the shape’s material ghost that entangles rather than demarcates. Rousseau and the shape are an “uncut” intra-action: subject and object, figural and material, light and night.

20.        Rousseau becomes, here, not just the Enlightenment patriarch who Mary Wollstonecraft targets as one of feminism’s arch-villains, but a phenomenon made of and for a new kind of feminist post-social-contract politics. By revealing the intra-action of the shape all light’s feminist critique of Enlightenment patriarchy with a key figure of that patriarchy, Shelley reversions the social contract as forms of intra-action that denude egocentric individualism of its power to cut people into Hobbesian individuals invested in their own welfare and warfare against the communal concerns of others. For Shelley’s carefully-chosen invocation of the Enlightenment via the wraith-like Rousseau, of course also conjures Rousseau’s main antagonist, the even more spectral Hobbes, and with him the attendant fears that life in the post-apocalypse will return us to a war of all against all, which the poem depicts in its (mon)anarchs and Bacchic simulacra chained to Death’s chariot, whose chaos we call variously libertarianism, despotism, or fascism. All such ideologies and factions, if they can even be distinguished, are grounded in amour propre, Rousseau’s, and Shelley’s, enemy. So whereas Kate Singer rightly remarks that “Rousseau’s dream presents him with nightmare visions of the social contract” (and that only the feminine shape all light can lead Rousseau out of “the nightmare of history”), for Rousseau and Shelley such nightmares are also dreamt because these are actually Hobbesian visions of life ("Stoned" 706, 688). In response to these nightmares, The Triumph of Life explodes both monarchical despotism and social-contract anarchic and democratic Enlightenment theories to rethink a viable post-social-contract community, to forge modes of being together on a post-apocalyptic world where governmental, cultural, familial, and religious institutions have all fallen, similar to what Rousseau and Hobbes describe in their differing versions of the originary state of nature.

21.        As such the shape all light differs from twilight, a diffracted course-change that runs away from the Anarchs’ navel-gazing self-love toward a love that tarries somewhere with the other, just as the material shape does with the nearest human subject, Rousseau. Here Shelley’s choice of Rousseau as Virgilesque guide to the speaker’s Dante culminates in a warning to abjure self-love or it will leave you, like Rousseau at poem’s end, “as one between desire and shame / suspended” (394–95). For it is Rousseau, and not Hobbes or Wollstonecraft, who targets self-love in A Discourse on Inequality(1755) and Reveries of the Solitary Walker (1770), in which humans’ egocentricity in the state of nature must be annihilated for any genuine social-contract politics to overpower human passion for self from self, a foundation for politics the poem lays bare as nothing more than a reset of Hobbesian anarchy disguised in the resulting simulacra of democratic revolutions that must be ruled by social contracts equally laid bare as ineffectively useless. But whereas Rousseau’s solution is the erasure of self completely in Reveries, his last book, Shelley repurposes Rousseau as his guide to checkmate the anthropocentric self-love that operates the Anarchs’ politics. [20]  As Orrin Wang argues, Shelley’s Rousseau critiques both the Enlightenment’s failure and a post-Enlightenment, post-Napoleon despair over failed revolutions. That Rousseau the Enlightenment philosophe is most associated with the French Revolution signals this failure even as the poem targets Rousseau’s intense engagement with overcoming his own egocentricism, like an arrow loosed, not by the sun god, Apollo, but by the god of the stars, Hesperus: self-love as the foundation for an anthropocentrism that is killing us. Witness Rousseau throughout the poem, constantly concerned with himself—“Shew whence I came, and where I am, and why” (398)—rather than others since “none seemed to know / Whither he went or whence he came, or why” (47–48). [21]  Nepenthe is meant to erase self-love—which is patriarchal and masculine as opposed to the feminist shape all light—through its erasure of the self but it only blots out the Lockean tabula rosa of the mind, blots out the subject as epistemologically constructed. Touching his lips to the cup of self-forgetting recalls the speaker to himself, but only up to the moment of intra-action between Rousseau and the shape all light, which ontologically recreates the self and the other as a new entangled phenomenon. The Triumph of Life therefore illustrates how such an entanglement can overcome, finally, the revolutions that ultimately fail because of self-love: anthropocentric apocalyptic belief in a progressive utopian future brought about by humans acting upon a world that exists for rather than with and without them (since entanglement upends such temporal and spatial coordinates).

22.        The poem thus finds Shelley confronting his own earlier narcissistic theorization of love as well as Rousseau’s Julie (1761), an ur-text for the poem about those, to quote Rihanna, who fall in love in a hopeless place. Drawing on Enlightenment ideas about sympathy, Shelley writes, in "On Love," that “we are born into the world and there is something within us which from the instant that we live and move thirsts after its likeness” (504). Even while we seek homology in another’s form, an instance of narcissistic externalization, our parched self’s thirst for self-love—like the anarchs whose self-love quenches the sun, which is their mirror—turns inward and “we dimly see within our intellectual nature a miniature as it were of our entire self” (504). Delving into the self is explicitly reflective rather than diffractive physics, “a mirror whose surface reflects only the forms of purity and brightness: a soul within our soul that describes a circle around its proper Paradise which pain and sorrow or evil dare not overlap” (504). In this earlier essay, love, for Shelley, remains grounded in the desire for the apocalyptic, or paradisiacal, unity of perfection within the self, a kind of tunneled-under version of Rousseau’s self-love in Julie: “love is but illusion; it fashions for itself, so to speak, another Universe; it surrounds itself with objects that do not exist, or to which it alone has given being; and as it renders all its sentiments by images, its language is always figurative. […] When passion is at the full . . . [it] . . . can see nothing but Paradise, Angels, the virtues of Saints, the delights of the celestial” (10). For Rousseau in Julie, love’s figurative nature is tethered to its essentially mutable nature: it creates non-real universes, new person suits, constantly transfigurable.

23.        In contrast, The Triumph theorizes love, not as figuration, but as entanglements that are unadorned by the masks of Rousseauvian self-delusion exhibited by the skeletal trick n’ treaters at poem’s end. Shelley’s Rousseau, in relating his vision of Dante, claims that the world is dumb to love’s music:

“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.” (477–80)
Love is music, a light, a singer, that melodically rhymes to lovers but which the world itself cannot hear because love’s materiality is external to human beings. Love is a feeling between two subjects but also materialist, a “light” or external song that only comes into being as hearable music—apparently the evidence of its existence—between two subjects. In other words, love is a quantum entanglement that can only be heard, to put it paradoxically, once it is heard since its existence appears as the harmonic melody produced through the note-playing of one lover to another. And yet, because the world cannot hear love, this means that love, more paradoxically still, does exist separately, materially from the world dumb to its song. Nonetheless, “the sphere,” or world that cannot hear love, is moved by this very melody it is deaf to. At the syntactic level, the poem runs the world up against the wondrous rhyming of love’s musical melody, the dash shoving in like a trident from the sea against the line as if the world, while deaf to love, peers outward to Dante’s fiery inferno:
“A wonder worthy of his rhyme—the grove
Grew dense with shadows to its inmost covers
The earth was grey with phantoms, and the air
Was peopled with dim forms” (480–83).
This earth filled with phantoms and dim-form people reminds us that subjects remain shadowy strands of gossamer, black striations on the pattern of the world’s light, a difference, we must recall, between sleep and waking, and waking sleepfulness, and sleepy dreaming. Neither subject nor love exists then, neither in the world nor between lovers prior to their love: it is a thing that is neither object nor subject but an entanglement between the two. Here, life begins and ends as one-to-one.

24.        Donald Reiman writes that Shelley changed his conception of love between "On Love" (circa 1818) and A Defence of Poetry (1821) from “love as a response from others to his nature” to “a pursuit and celebration of the good that he saw in others” (10), one that evokes Humean and Smithian sympathy. But The Triumph of Life revolts against any such notions. As the masks falling from the countenances of the poem’s orgiastic revelers remind us—as indeed does the speaker’s and Rousseau’s phantasmaticity—no autonomous subjects, either in body or mind, exist as yet in the world of the poem, only simulacra, a false impression of a reality suspended by its own naïve beliefs in a division between humans and the world as if they are independent actors irresponsible for their own delusions. What the poem discovers instead is that love is its own material entity, external to the subject, yet also, paradoxically, reliant on its entanglement with the subject for its life. One cannot go outside oneself to love the good in the other because the subject does not exist before love; every iteration of love fashions itself and the subject anew. And, indeed, the great moral of the poem is that such iterations form the architecture and architexture of a social contract after all social contracts can no longer exist in politics-as-usual manifestations, when institutional restraints like those favored by Hobbes and Rousseau are no longer possible, when life can only continue by bravely not knowing what life is, when no answers are any longer possible. To the question “then, what is life?” the poem answers: knowledge of the contour, nature, and time of life are irrelevant. For love is the answer, an entanglement that may fail, like any politics, and fail again, and again, until an entanglement shapes lovers’ light as what love is for real: ontologically beyond transfiguration, true love. And this is where Shelley surpasses Barad because for him a final spacetime of love can emerge between two people.

25.        By thinking love as non-transfigurational because it only exists as intra-active entanglement (again, space and time do not change they are made), Shelley crafts a vision of future spacetimes wherein love creates its subjects even as they create love for the first time. Seen in this light, the many lights of Shelley’s poem, before the subject and object are entangled in love, no subject, no self, exists, nor, indeed, does love itself. Love, then, is love, in a space and time of its own loving. In Epipsychidion (1821), Shelley remained faithful to the idea of love as a relation between a subject and object, a lover and beloved. But the bonds in such relations dissolve, as they do in that poem, since, like the simulacra in The Triumph of Life, subjects cling to the notion that they are human subjects. Shelley realizes that this “cut” between subject and object is itself a delusion. A priori notions of anthropocentric subjects are simply masks humans put on to cut themselves off from the world; in so doing they assume the title of another Napoleon or Frederick or Caesar, anthropocentricism as another form of the narcissism and egocentricity attributed to love that the poem resists and rewrites. Instead, the music of love arrives from outside the human even as it is also arises from the subjects who fall in love, the material drawing humans together into relations even as, in the process, love creates both itself and the subjects-as-lovers.

26.        Imagining beyond the anthropocentric subject, Shelley’s theory of love suggests not the egoistic chaos of a world lost to political anarchy but rather a radical politics of love that creates worlds anew. Love is an intra-action that manifests new types of life, of living on, from a future-yet-to-come, of spacetimes on a world without us we could never have possibly anticipated because those worlds do not yet exist (this is why the poem breaks off). The poem wants us to know that this lovely spatiotemporality is like the stars, which, in their ulteriority beyond human life, constantly evince our own end even as this turns us back to consider our own survival since it reminds us that there may be none without love. The Triumph of Life triumphs by knowing that life cannot be defined since each entanglement is of its own making, its own life. While we can never know what life is, Shelley entreats us, we must learn what true love is, and that is all we may know on earth and all we need to know. This is what Shelley knew, sitting on the sands of the Bay of Lerici, writing this poem, gazing at the sea that would soon claim him. In this time of disaster, of fallen stars, the triumph of love means a becoming of ourselves in our entanglement with the other in the darkness of light before the waves carry us away. For the uncertainty of our survival guarantees the paradox both of love’s radical indestructibility and the limited time it has left to live, to love, while we gaze up at the stars.

Works Cited

Abbey, Lloyd. "Apocalyptic Scepticism: The Imagery of Shelley's The Triumph of Life." Keats-Shelley Journal, vol. 27, 1978, pp. 70–86.

Abrams, M.H. Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature. Norton, 1973.

Baker, Carlos. "The Necessity of Love: Alastor and the Epipsyche." Shelley: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by George M. Ridenour, Prentice Hall, 1965, pp. 51–68.

Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke UP, 2007.

Bloom, Harold. Shelley’s Mythmaking. Cornell UP, 1969.

Carlson, Julie. "Like Love: The Feel of Shelley’s Similes." Romanticism and the Emotions, edited by Joel Faflak and Richard C. Sha, Cambridge UP, 2014, pp. 76–97.

Chernaik, Judith. The Lyrics of Shelley. Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1972.

"Closure." The X-Files, written by Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz, directed by Kim Manners, Fox, 2000.

Curran, Stuart. Shelley’s Annus Mirabilis: The Maturing of an Epic Vision. Huntington Library, 1975.

de Man, Paul. "Hypogram and Inscription." The Resistance to Theory. U of Minnesota P, 1986, pp. 27–52.

———. "Shelley Disfigured." The Rhetoric of Romanticism. Columbia UP, 1984, pp. 93–123.

Derrida, Jacques. "The Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority.’" Acts of Religion, edited by Gil Anidjar, Routledge, 2002, pp. 228–98.

———. "Living On." Deconstruction and Criticism, edited by Harold Bloom, Continuum, 1979, pp. 62–142.

———. Memoires of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and other Ruins. Translated by Anne Pascale-Brault & Michael Naas, U of Chicago P, 1993.

———. "Plato’s Pharmacy." Disseminations, translated by Barbara Johnson, U of Chicago P, 1981, pp. 61–156.

Duffy, Edward. Rousseau in England: The Context for Shelley’s Critique of the Enlightenment. U of California P, 1979.

Faflak, Joel. "The Difficult Education of Shelley’s The Triumph of Life." The Keats-Shelley Journal, vol. 58, 2009, pp. 53–78.

Goldstein, Amanda Jo. "Growing Old Together: Lucretian Materialism in Shelley’s ‘Poetry of Life.’" Representations, vol. 128, no. 1, 2014, pp. 60–92.

Hamilton, Paul. "Literature and Philosophy." The Cambridge Companion to Shelley, edited by Timothy Morton, Cambridge UP, 2006, pp. 166–84.

Hazlitt, William. "Review of Shelley Posthumous Poems." Edinburgh Review, vol. 40, July 1824, pp. 494–514.

Kucich, Greg. "Eternity and the Ruins of Time: Shelley and the Construction of Cultural History." Shelley: Poet and Legislator of the World, edited by Stuart Curran and Betty Bennett, Johns Hopkins UP, 1995, pp. 14–29.

Lussier, Mark. "Shelley’s Poetics, Wave Dynamics, and the Telling Rhythm of Complementarity." The Wordsworth Circle, vol. 34, no. 2, 2003, pp. 92–95.

McGann, Jerome. "The Spirit of an Elder Day: Shelley after Hellas." Keats Shelley Journal vol. 15, 1966, pp. 25–41.

Meillassoux, Quentin. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Translated by Ray Brassier, Bloomsbury, 2006.

Newton, Isaac. The Optics. 1730, 4th ed., e-book, Project Gutenberg, 2010.

O’Neill, Michael. The Human’s Mind’s Imaginings: Conflict and Achievement in Shelley’s Poetry. Clarendon P, 1989.

Plotnitsky, Arkady. "All Shapes of Light: The Quantum Mechanical Shelley." Shelley: Poet and Legislator of the World, edited by Stuart Curran and Betty Bennett, Johns Hopkins UP, 1995, pp. 263–73.

Reiman, Donald H. "Shelley and the Human Condition." Shelley: Poet and Legislator of the World, edited by Betty T. Bennett & Stuart Curran, Johns Hopkins UP, 1996, pp. 3–13.

Roberts, Hugh. Shelley and the Chaos of History: A New Politics of Poetry. Pennsylvania State UP, 1997.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Julie, or the New Heloise. Translated by Philip Stewart & Jean Vache, U of New England P, 1997.

Schulze, Earl. "Allegory against Allegory: The Triumph of Life." Studies in Romanticism, vol. 27, no. 1, 1988, pp. 31–63.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. "Notes [Shelley’s Notes to Queen Mab]." The Complete Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, vol. II, edited by Donald H. Reiman & Neil Fraistat, Johns Hopkins UP, 2004, pp. 239–95.

———. "The Mask of Anarchy". Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, 2nd ed., edited by Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat, Norton, 2002. 315–25.

———. The Triumph of Life. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, 2nd ed., edited by Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat, Norton, 2002. 481–500.

Singer, Kate. "Stoned Shelley: Revolutionary Tactics and Women under the Influence." Studies in Romanticism, vol. 48, no. 4, 2009, pp. 687–707.

———. "Limpid Waves and Good Vibrations: Charlotte Smith’s New Materialist Affect." Essays in Romanticism, vol. 23, no. 2, 2016, pp. 175–92.

Stovall, F. "Shelley’s Doctrine of Love." PMLA, vol. 45, 1930, pp. 283–303.

Ulmer, William. A. Shelleyan Eros: The Rhetoric of Romantic Love. Princeton UP, 1990.

Wang, Orrin N. C. "Disfiguring Monuments: History in Paul de Man’s Shelley Disfigured and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Triumph of Life." ELH, vol 58, 1991, pp. 633–55.

Warren, Andrew. "‘Unentangled Intermixture’: Love and Materialism in Shelley’s Epipsychidion." Keats-Shelley Journal, vol. 59, 2010, pp. 78–95.

Washington, Chris. "Romanticism and Speculative Realism." Literature Compass, vol. 12, no. 9, 2015, pp. 448–60.

———. Romantic Revelations: Visions of Post-Apocalyptic Life. U of Toronto P, forthcoming.

Wasserman, Earl. Shelley: A Critical Reading. Johns Hopkins UP, 1977.

Woodman, Ross. The Apocalyptic Vision in the Poetry of Shelley. U of Toronto P, 1964.

Wright, John. Shelley’s Myth of Metaphor. U of Georgia P, 1970.

Wroe, Anne. "Resolutions, Destinations: Shelley’s Last Year," The Oxford Handbook of Percy Bysshe Shelley, edited by Michael O’Neill, Anthony Howe, and Madeleine Callaghan, Oxford UP, 2013, pp. 48–64.

Young, Thomas. "The Bakerian Lectures: On the Theory of Light and Colours." Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society of London, vol. 92, 1802, pp. 12–48.


[1] Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, edited by Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat, 2nd ed, Norton, 2002, pp. 481–502. All references to Shelley’s poetry and prose, unless otherwise noted, are to this edition, cited by line, act, and/or page number. BACK

[2] See de Man, Blindness and Insight and Allegories of Reading. See also Derrida’s comment that we must consider de Man’s texts as open to his own procedure ("Typewriter"). BACK

[3] On how de Man’s work aligns with speculative realism, see Washington. Much has been written about de Man’s notion of the materiality of the letter as a materiality resistant to aesthetic totality. See Derrida, "Typewriter" 350. My reading suggests that there is a materiality with matter in de Man. BACK

[4] Paul Hamilton notes that Shelley was always interested in both the epistemological and the speculative. One of Shelley’s early essays is titled "Speculations on Metaphysics." BACK

[5] See Newton’s Optics (3: 400) and Young (16, 45). BACK

[6] I am referencing the episode titled "Closure." BACK

[7] Mark Lussier provides a thorough overview of Shelley’s use of quantum theory. Plotnitsky reads The Triumph of Life specifically as a showcase for Shelley’s theorizing of what Niels Bohr calls “complementarity.” For Plotnitsky, complementarity resembles Derridean différance, the way in which the trace structure defers and differentiates linguistic meaning spatiotemporally (264). However, mapping Bohr’s quantum mechanics onto Derridean deconstruction is not only a maneuver that oversimplifies quantum complementarity, it also commits a phallogocentric gesture Derrida would surely not endorse. It erases feminist science studies and eco-feminism from a discourse it has actually been at the forefront of for decades. BACK

[8] Meillassoux sometimes uses the term “ancestrality.” BACK

[9] Wasserman notes the importance of stars for Shelley: “stars, however, carried a special symbolic significance for Shelley that he exploited in a number of poems. To him they are ‘immortal stars,’ ‘eternal,’ ‘deathless,’ ‘sacred’; they are ‘pure’ and dwell in ‘Eternal bowers’” (161). According to Wasserman “he also glimpsed intimations of the eternity of transcendent Being in the fact that the stars are always present, obscured in day from earthly vision only by the diffusion of sunlight in the earth’s atmosphere. The likening of the flower-world to the star-heaven suggests, then, not merely the mutable oscillation of starriness between world and sky but also, paradoxically, the immutable eternity of that starrinesss and therefore the possible eternity of both Existence, which is equitable with the One Mind, and the totally comprehensive and ultimate Being” (161). Wasserman’s valuable insight into Shelley’s symbology deviates from my reading of stars in that Wasserman, by returning them to a revelation of transcendence, and ultimately an equality with the One Mind and hence the human, construes the stars as evidence of a possible future paradise in the anthropocentric mode. BACK

[10] Ulmer offers a version of Shelley as lusting for transcendence: “The pressure contradiction exerts on Shelley’s radicalism ends by diverting love from world mediations to transcendent absolutes. The apocalyptic drive of Shelley’s late poetry reflects the continuity of his idealism and politics as antitypical facets of a single desire” (24). John Wright has a similar view of love and transcendence in Shelley. Wright takes “metaphoric apprehension . . . to be the fundamental power of the human mind and a mental counterpart of the primal capacity for self-transcendence he found in love” (22). For more on love in Shelley see Stovall, Warren, and Baker. BACK

[11] For excellent readings of the apocalyptic in Shelley see Woodman, Abbey, and Wasserman. For the vexed debate on this issue of the apocalyptic see: Woodman, Bloom, Abrams, Curran, Wasserman, Chernaik, O’Neill, and Wroe. BACK

[12] I make this argument in my forthcoming Romantic Revelations: Visions of Post-Apocalyptic. See also, my essay "Romanticism and Speculative Realism." BACK

[13] My reading places me alongside Ullmer’s larger point even as I diverge from him when it comes to Shelley’s desire for death through an increasingly highly wrought apotheosizing of love: “we must . . . read Shelley’s politics as an aspect of his rhetoric of Romantic love” even as Shelley’s love poetics lead to an acceptance of “death as the telos of desire and gravitates[s] increasingly toward a visionary despair” (18). BACK

[14] For a similar though different reading of life in the poem, see Faflak, 54. BACK

[15] For Derrida’s thinking that connects love and ruins, see "The Force of Law" (278) and Memoires of the Blind. BACK

[16] While it is true, as Greg Kucich says, that Shelley was an anarchist, in this poem, “Anarchs” stand, for Shelley, as a Hobbesian politics that incorporates all versions of self-love represented by Caesar, Frederick, etc. BACK

[17] Although discussing "The Sensitive Plant" and not The Triumph of Life, Wasserman valuably points out that, for Shelley, “flowers and stars are not only analogous but also, as their other occurrences indicate, interchangeable. That flowers are the stars of earth is a commonplace that was an important, often central, symbol in Shelley’s poetry after he became acquainted in 1819 with the plays of Calderon . . . ” (159). BACK

[18] For Goldstein, Shelley’s Lucretian materialism can bridge the gaps between the poem’s various materialisms: “to the extent that three technical, hard-to-reconcile senses of ‘matter’ compete in contemporary materialist criticism—the deconstructive materiality of the letter, the Marxian matter of history, and, more recently, the ‘vibrant’ and polymorphous material that ‘new’ materialists retrieve from the history of philosophy and modern science studies—De rerum natura still has something to offer” (64). I skew toward what we call “new materialism,” although Barad’s work, I hope to show, exceeds all of these formulations to suggest something much more radical about how the real and non-real, the discursive and material, are mutually constitutive. BACK

[19] But this antidote is not the same as Derrida’s pharmakon since light and subject enter entirely new entanglements rather than being always already a form of différance. See "Plato’s Pharmacy." BACK

[20] Hamilton (180) has also noticed this link between Shelley and Rousseau’s Reveries. See also Duffy for a historical situating of Rousseau’s work in the period. BACK

[21] Earl Schulze also notices that Rousseau’s questions are indicative of self-love (54). BACK


JSON What's this?
As you're browsing RC, you might see small buttons scattered on various pages. These buttons let you download that page's content in a ready-to-use data file! Learn more on our RC Data page.