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19 pages 38 minutes read

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Mutability

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1816

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Percy Bysshe (pronounced “Bish”) Shelley is the author of “Mutability”—a Romantic lyric published in 1816. The poem fits the lyric genre because it’s short and expresses personal feelings. The poem exemplifies the English Romantic movement because its message revolves around the volatility of the individual. Romantics believed that humans were not stable, rational creatures. Instead, people were as stormy and evanescent as their environment. No human has the power to make their identity concrete and overcome mutability. Change always wins, and this impermanence marks Shelley’s personal life. Born in 1792, he rebelled against his family’s wealth and the secure life his parents wanted for him. He championed revolution and advocated for a complete makeover of society.

With love, too, Shelley demonstrates transitory traits. He left his first wife, Harriet Westbrook, for Mary Goodwin, who’d become Mary Shelley and the author of the classic horror novel Frankenstein (1818), which features lines from “Mutability.” Shelley also loved the ephemeral quality of water and sailing, and, in 1822, his boat, Ariel, met a storm, and Shelley drowned—dying shortly before his 30th birthday. A prolific writer, Shelley didn’t receive much positive publicity during his life. Now, he’s best known for poems such as Queen Mab (1813) and “Ode to the West Wind” (1820) and his essay “A Defence of Poetry” (1821), where he famously labels poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

Poet Biography

Shelley was born in England on August 4, 1792. His dad, Timothy Shelley, was a wealthy landowner and a member of Parliament (MP). As a boy, Shelley stood out. In Anne Wroe’s analytical biography of Shelley, Being Shelley (Pantheon Books, 2007), Shelley comes across as “wild and odd” and proud that the kids at school call him “Mad Shelley” (Wroe 31). Later, Oxford University expelled Shelley for authoring a pro-atheist pamphlet. After Oxford, Shelley regularly kept company with radicals and revolutionaries, which made authorities and the literary establishment suspicious of him.

Shelley’s love life was equally rocky. In 1811, he married Harriet Westbrook, the daughter of a coffee house owner. Shelley was 19, Westbrook was 16, and they had two children. In 1814, Shelley left Westbrook for Mary Goodwin. Her parents were relatively radical thinkers, and Shelley maintained a relationship with her dad William. Mary and Shelley had four children—only one lived a long time. In 1816, Westbook drowned herself, and authorities banned Shelley from gaining custody of their two children. Shelley and Mary maintained a somewhat scandalous friend group, which included Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont and the larger-than-life Romantic poet Lord Byron. On July 8, 1822, Shelley and two of his friends drowned while sailing on his boat.

Although Shelley died before he was 30, he produced an extensive body of literature. He published essays on Christianity, devils, politics, love, and literature. He also wrote a novel, Zastrozzi (1810), and short stories. Shelley remains best known for his poetry. He wrote long poems like Queen Mab (1813), and shorter poems like “Ozymandias” (1818), “Ode to the West Wind” (1820), and “Mutability,” which he published in 1816 as a part of the collection Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude: And Other Poems.

Poem Text

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.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Mutability.” 1816. Poetry Foundation.

Summary

The poem is about the transitory nature of all humans, so it starts with the plural pronoun “we.” Shelley’s narrator compares people to “clouds that veil the midnight moon” (Line 1). The clouds race and shine. They shake brightly before “[n]ight closes round” and vanishes them “for ever” (Line 4).

Next, the narrator compares humans to “forgotten lyres” (Line 5), which are U-shaped string instruments. The musical device has “dissonant strings” (Line 5) or clashing parts. It's delicate, with a “frail frame” (Line 7), so the notes and sounds change each time: No “mood or modulation [is] like the last” (Line 8).

Moving on from comparisons, the narrator observes the unsteady actions of humans. The first two have a downside. People “rest” even though dreams can “poison sleep” (Line 9). People also rise from bed and go about their life even though a stray thought might ruin the day. Humans contain a trove of messy elements. They feel, reason, cry, and laugh. They can confront sadness—“fond woe” (Line 12)—or fling their romanticized sorrows away.

Whether the issue is “joy or sorrow,” it doesn’t matter, or “[i]t is the same!” (Line 13). Happy or sad, the outcome is identical. A person’s yesterday won’t be like their tomorrow because life and the human condition are in constant flux. What triumphs isn’t a specific feeling or thought. Nothing “may endure but Mutability” (Line 16). Change reigns supreme.

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