mutability

Category: Writing & Reading | Type: Discussion | Title: Frankenstein (in Context) | Author: Mary Shelley | Ch: Chapter 10

The last two stanzas of Percy Shelley's 1816 poem "Mutability" (not to be confused with another poem, 1821, with the same title). The entire poem follows:

We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;

How restlessly they speed, and gleam, and quiver,
Streaking the darkness radiantly!--yet soon
Night closes round, and they are lost for ever;

 

Or like forgotten lyres, whose dissonant strings

Give various response to each varying blast,
To whose frail frame no second motion brings
One mood or modulation like the last.

 

We rest. -- A dream has power to poison sleep;

We rise. -- One wandering thought pollutes the day;
We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep;
Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away:

 

It is the same!--For, be it joy or sorrow,

The path of its departure still is free:
Man's yesterday may ne'er be like his morrow;
Nought may endure but Mutability.

The first two stanzas address our busy activity, which only briefly distracts from our transcience. We are as vaporous as clouds. Or, untuned lyres that, discarded, have become aolian harps responding to every passing wind.

The last two stanzas address the idea Mary broached a few lines before, which is that we're by no means entirely free. We sleep, and a dream (we can't control the unconscious) poisons sleep. We are subject to uncontrollable internal (autonomic) and external forces. In a bitterly ironic use of the word "free," Shelley says the path of departure of sorrow or joy "still is free," in the sense of nothing we can control. The poem ends with a sentiment close to that of Ecclesiastes. Mutandis mutandi: the only constant is change. 

The subject of mutability engaged the Romantics. For the sake of comparison, here is Wordsworth's  "Mutability," a sonnet of 1821:

From low to high doth dissolution climb,
And sink from high to low, along a scale
Of awful notes, whose concord shall not fail;
A musical but melancholy chime,
Which they can hear who meddle not with crime,
Nor avarice, nor over-anxious care.
Truth fails not; but her outward forms that bear
The longest date do melt like frosty rime,
That in the morning whitened hill and plain
And is no more; drop like the tower sublime
Of yesterday, which royally did wear
His crown of weeds, but could not even sustain
Some casual shout that broke the silent air,
Or the unimaginable touch of Time.

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