This poem was first published in 1816 in the collection, Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude: And Other Poems.
Shelley begins this piece by taking everyday elements of human life and comparing them to human nature itself. He speaks on the beauty of midnight clouds blocking the sun, how quickly they move through the sky and then are gone. Just as human life, and the joys we experience, are fleeting. He continues by speaking on the distinctive sound of the lyre and how one note is invariably different from the one that follows, no two will be exactly the same. This is compared to the fact that no two days in someone’s life will be identical. All experience is ever-changing.
The second half of this poem speaks directly on human emotion and action, how these emotions may appear to be different, such as sorrow and joy, but in reality, they are all the same. Each way of living one’s life, whether through embracing or casting out woes, will end the same. The poem concludes by making the statement that nothing in the world lasts forever except mutability.
Analysis of Mutability
Before any analysis of the actual poem itself, it is important to have a clear understanding of the term “mutability.” Mutability has the general meaning of variability or frequent change, but when it comes to poetry its list of meanings and connotations grows longer. Poets use this word in relation to the idea of nothing lasting forever, such as death existing in nature and the rebirth of new life after death. It is important to keep these ideas in mind while reading this piece.
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 forever:
Shelley begins this poem with a comparison of the nature of human life to that of “clouds that veil the midnight moon.” This is the first very well-defined reference to the idea of mutability. These clouds are described as “restless” and “speeding” they “gleam” as they “speed” past the “midnight moon.” Briefly, they block it out, but soon they streak by. Their presence is beautiful and “radiant” but soon “Night closes round” and they are gone. Just as human life is beautiful and fleeting, so too are these midnight clouds. This is a clear reference to mutability as it is emphasizing the ever-changing nature of the world, and the briefness of life.
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.
The second stanza of this poem is another comparison of human nature; this time compared to the sound of “forgotten lyres.” A lyre was a popular instrument in medieval Europe, and its unique sound is being tied to the variability of human emotion and experience. Shelley is emphasizing how everyone, because of their different backgrounds and lives, have different responses to different stimuli (like the “various response to each varying blast”). In addition to this, human nature is further complicated by the fact that never again will the person (or lyre) have “One mood or modulation like the last.” This is a more complicated way of saying that never again will one be just as they are now, or feel things the same way they do at this moment.
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:
The third stanza delves deeper into the human condition, putting emphasis directly on the thoughts of everyday life. Shelley refers to the human species as “we” in this stanza. He says, “We rest” and while we are sleeping we can have tumultuous dreams that prevent us from getting enough rest. These dreams are out of our control, just as are the “wandering thoughts” that are spoken of in the next line. Dreams poison our sleep, and thoughts “pollute the day.” These elements of our lives that are intangible have a great impact on how we feel and interact with others, but they are fleeting.
In the next two lines, Shelley speaks about two different ways of handling life. He lists that “We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep.” These actions are opposites with conceive meaning “imagine,” and reason meaning scientific understanding, and laugh and weep clearly contrasting. These opposites relate to the opposite ways of dealing with the world that is mentioned in the last line of this stanza. One may embrace “woe” as a fond companion or cast it out. Humans may live with their worries or forget them.
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 last stanza of this poem brings all of Shelley’s thoughts to a clear conclusion. Everything that has been mentioned in the previous stanza is now called “the same.” Whether one is happy or sad, all come to the same end, “The path of its departure still is free,” nothing will stop death or change from occurring.
In the last two lines, Shelley reiterates the idea that what has happened will never happen again. What one experiences today will never be what one experiences tomorrow. Nothing in the world that we live in will “endure,” except for mutability. Nothing will last forever but change itself.
About Percy Bysshe Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley was born in 1792 in Broadbridge Heath, England. He was raised in the countryside and was educated at University College, Oxford. While in school Shelley was well known for his liberal views and was once chastised for writing a pamphlet titled, The Necessity of Atheism. His parents were severely disappointed in him and demanded that he forsake all of his beliefs. Soon after this, he eloped with a 16-year-old woman, Harriet Westbrook, whom he quickly tired. It was at this time that Shelley began writing his long-form poetry for which he is best known.
Shelley had two children with Harriet but before their second was born he left her for the future author of Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, Mary Godwin. Mary became pregnant with her and Shelley’s first child soon after and Harriet sued Shelley for divorce. Soon after this Mary and Percy met Lord Byron, or George Gordon, it was through one of their meetings that Mary was inspired to write Frankenstein.
In 1816 Shelley’s first wife Harriet committed suicide and Mary and Percy were officially wed. Mary Shelley’s only child to live into adulthood from their time together was Percy Florence. In early 1818 he and his wife left England and Shelley produced the majority of his most well-known works including, Prometheus Unbound. In 1822, not long before he was meant to turn 30, Shelley was drowned in a storm while sailing in his schooner on the way to La Spezia, Italy. Mary was only 24 at the time and would live to the age of 53, dying of brain cancer in London in 1851.