In the poem “Mutability”, Percy Shelley presents a theme of the perpetual change that humans struggle with in their lives. He portrays this in various ways, with comparisons of humans to clouds and to lyres being present. Shelley discovers the different emotions of humans with the inevitability of change completely consuming them. He shows that unlike change, the human life is insignificant and will easily be forgotten. Despite humankind’s best attempt to conceal this change, it is a real factor in life with the only option being to embrace it. Shelley believes that people undertake life with a certain quickness, which will conclude in being overshadowed anyway. He goes on to state that regardless of the accomplishments that are attained during one’s lifetime, they will be forgotten easily. Despite our reactions to life’s course, we ultimately have no control over the concept of change. Shelley uses skilful imagery in the first two stanzas of the work, which bring the reader closer to the poem, igniting a spark of interest and later, allowing for the complete understanding of the concept of mutability. Percy Shelley’s poem sheds light on the fragility of the human condition.
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Percy Shelley opens his poem comparing humans to “clouds that veil the midnight moon” (Line 1). This portrays to the reader the way in which Shelley sees the “We,” (Line 1) human beings. He considers the moon as an object of mutability and suggests that like the clouds, humans try to hide or conceal change. This becomes apparent as Shelley states, “- yet soon/ Night closes round, and they are lost for ever” (Lines 3-4). This line shows the perpetuation of change despite our attempts to conceal it using the image of night enveloping us to demonstrate human mortality. Shelley’s imagery of the night’s clouds is his representing for the reader the perhaps extravagant, but certainly short lives of humans on Earth. Shelley describes the cloud’s actions as a metaphor for human actions, “How restlessly they speed, and gleam, and quiver, / streaking the darkness radiantly!” (Lines 2-3). He believes that humans go through life with speed, not taking time to rest; like clouds at night, we do not last forever. Although human beings attempt to be ostentatious, Shelley deems that we are all insignificant because we are easily forgotten. The first stanza portrays the fact that humans are mortal, and regardless of how radiantly we may shine, we are like clouds at night that are overshadowed.
The second stanza is rich in imagery, which Shelley uses to narrate his points. He depicts humans again, this time as “forgotten lyres [stringed musical instruments of the harp family], 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”(Lines 5-9). Shelley describes the simple beauty that humans can be as well as create, but presents the frailty of our existence and how quickly humans along with the beauty created can be forgotten as well. These lines present another metaphor that furthers the concept of human mortality. Shelley compares humans to “forgotten lyres” in that our ability to create and produce is short lived; all that is amounted during our lifetime will be forgotten once we cease to exist. Each motion brings the lyre a different sound, which induces a different mood. Shelley may be referring to the human body and how frail it is, regardless of how strong it may feel. He compares humans to instruments that have been cast aside, whose melodies sweet in their own time are now forgotten. Once humankind’s frail time is over, it will never come again. These images suggest that Shelley sees nothing good in life.
Shelley begins the third stanza incorporating rhythm. The use of short, two word sentences followed by a longer one, which describes the outcome of the preceding sentence, is present. Whether humans “rest,” “rise,” “feel,” or “embrace” (Lines 9-12) the inevitability of change surrounds us and it becomes clear that we have no control of the course of change in our lives. A dream can “poison” (Line 9) our sleep or a wandering thought can “pollute” (Line 10) the day. Shelley explores human emotions to an extremely in-depth level resulting with these pessimistic conclusions. His repetition of the word or in this stanza demonstrates the existence of varied emotion that we encounter throughout life. Shelley states, “We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep; / Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away:” (Lines 11-12). These lines reveal Shelley’s belief that regardless of the good people do, the action will not be reciprocated.
The fourth stanza opens up with an ironic tone when Shelley exclaims, “It is the same! – For, be it joy or sorrow, / The path of its departure still is free:” (Lines 13-14). The irony lies in the fact that Shelley considers mutability inevitable, and as the only thing able to withstand the effects of time- yet change, he proclaims, “…is the same!” Shelley’s description of the free path further advances the notion that humans are immobilized against the forces that produce transformations and are the source of happiness or grief for us. Shelley sums up his notion of change and the reality of the passage of time in the last two lines of the fourth stanza; “Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow; / Nought may endure but Mutability” (Lines 15-16). While humans experience limited lives, many inconsistencies exist that have differing effects on how we encounter life in the future. Elation and distress are evanescent; life changes every day with humans incapable of interfering. This stanza concludes with Shelley claiming that all these emotions ultimately amount to nothing; regardless of how awful one day was, the next day is always on its way. This tone shift comes perhaps from the realization that mankind can do nothing to stop the vicious cycle created, so the only option left is to embrace it and see each day as fresh.
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Shelley skilfully uses the tone of this poem to relate the meaning in which he is trying to relay. Overall, “Mutability” has a solemn, reflecting tone. The evidence of this tone comes most clearly in the last stanza, “Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow; /Nought may endure but Mutability” (Lines 15-16). The use of the word ‘may’ here is almost ironic, for Shelley must realize there is no way to prove the truth in his statement. He irrationally holds on to some hope that there ‘may’ be another way, yet he realizes that there truly is not. The irony of this poem is also revealed as Shelley is coming to his conclusions; “It is the same-…” (Line 13) and “Nought may endure but Mutability” (Line 16). Shelley reveals for the reader the great irony in the truth that he has revealed. Nothing may endure but change. The whole thought itself is an irony. ‘It is the same’ throughout history, we know no certainty but change. The depth and irony of this thought is brought to light very skilfully in this poem. The use of Shelley’s tone, imagery, and diction do produce the desired effect for the reader. One cannot leave this poem without wondering about the thoughts presented.
Throughout his poem “Mutability”, Percy Shelley presents various aspects to the concept of change in human life. Using diverse metaphors for humanity, Shelley successfully leaves the reader questioning the significance of the human state. Whether we succumb to the pressures of the night and disappear like a cloud, or are simply a ‘forgotten lyre’ to a musician, this mutability will always consistently transpire. The reality of time as well as the mortality of humans are factors that show individuals are simply too weak to combat with mutability. The only true consistency in the world is this change, which completely incapacitates humans and makes one question their quest in life. Shelley knows it is unlikely for humans to “Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away,” (Line 12) as no one would favour misfortunes or disregard their personal needs. This poem searches for an answer to humanity’s struggle to combat with change and time, revealing that the only option left is to accept these inevitabilities into our lives and embrace them all we can.
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