In Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Mutability”, the speaker explores the tension that is experienced as a result of change; this change is seen in nature in the first four lines, music in the next four lines, emotion in the following four lines, and finally the speaker resolves the conflict in the concluding quatrain by expressing that “It is the same” (ll. 13). Although this seems to be a strange conclusion to come to considering the contrasting and oftentimes combating conundrums within the quatrains, it is in fact the only fitting final thought that can ultimately untie the knot and alleviate the pressure that is contained within each line. Through creating tension with contrasting imagery within the same lines, Shelley adeptly accentuates the truth that change, whether it be drastic or subtle, is a part of our existence as humans that must be reconciled with.
As an introduction into the tension surrounding change, the speaker utilizes the image of a cloud covering the moon as a way to show the mutability inherent in nature. The opening line expresses the idea that we are “as clouds that veil the midnight moon” (ll. 1). This picture has within it subtle tension with the use of the verb veil. The clouds are in motion, but the speed of this motion is slow, and uncertain. It isn’t until the following line that the speed of the motion is revealed to the reader. The tension increases with the addition of descriptors like how the clouds speed “restlessly” (ll. 2). The clouds aren’t just slowly veiling the moon; they are rapidly shrouding it. This creates a feeling of encroaching darkness and gives the reader a sensation of claustrophobia. The light created by the moon is being cloaked by the incoming cloud cover.
Although there is definite dissonance in the movement of the clouds across the moon, the speaker deepens this dissonance through contrasting light and dark. Normally, when clouds cover the moon the light is squelched behind a veil. This is not so in this case. The light of the moon “gleam[s], and quiver[s]” (ll. 2). The light is still present, but it quivers with the coming of the clouds. Tension rises in the following line as the clouds “[streak] the darkness radiantly!” (ll. 3). The juxtaposition of the streaking of darkness radiantly propels the pressure created by the contradicting wording until the tension is finally released in the last line of the quatrain: “yet soon / Night closes round, and they are lost forever” (ll. 3-4). The contrast of light and dark and the way in which the light, oftentimes white, clouds act as an agent of streaking the darkness creates and exhibits the tension that comes with changes in nature visually.
The changes that occur in the physical world, as addressed in the first quatrain, are heightened as the speaker continues their exploration of mutability in the realm of music and sound. In the first quatrain, the reader receives a visual representation of dissonance; the second quatrain examines auditory mutability. The speaker tells of “forgotten lyres, whose dissonant strings / Give various response to each varying blast” (ll. 5-6). The tension in the first two lines of the quatrain is heard through the words “forgotten,” “dissonant,” “various,” and “varying.” These sounds were once audible yet forgotten. The audio-memory of the lyre and the music that was once played thereon is fading further into memory. This image elicits a tone of sad longing for a half-remembered tonal memory that, just like the clouds covering the moon, will soon be “lost forever” (ll. 4). Rather than using contradicting phrasing like that of the first quatrain, the speaker builds upon the tension through compounding the melancholic mood by describing the “various response[s]” of the lyre as possessing a “frail frame” that is constantly changing with no “mood or modulation [being] like the last” (ll. 6-8). The tension isn’t totally resolved with the final line of the quatrain, for it is made more manifest through the motion of the mood and modulation, which perpetuates the pressure presented in the first two quatrains of the poem.
The perpetuation of pressure is proclaimed in the opening two lines of the third quatrain, as it is in the first quatrain, through creating cacophony in each individual action in the line. The speaker suggests that “We rest,” connoting that rest is a natural human experience. The complication surfaces immediately following the dash: “– A dream has power to poison sleep” (ll. 9). Although sleep is something that we all do, there is a potentially dangerous element of slumber that has the power to poison. Likewise, in the following line, the image of sleep is juxtaposed with the initial “We rise.” This rising, which usually holds within it a denotation of rebirth and redemption, is contrasted later in the line following the dash with, “– One wandering thought pollutes the day” (ll. 10). As compared to the previous two quatrains, the speaker condenses the tension like the spikes seen in that of a shrill noise captured in a microphone. This tension, although very much present in this quatrain, is short and more representative of the “varying blast[s]” described in the second quatrain (ll. 6).
The rest of the quatrain, which continues exploring dissonance in emotions, shortens the tension to an almost syllabic sensation, thus making for an even quicker and sharper conflict-resolution than the previous two lines. Instead of dividing the dissonance between one half of the line and the other, the tension is evident between neighboring words. “We feel,” the speaker states, “conceive or reason” (ll. 11). Each of these words are ways in which humans receive and perceive sensations. Although these words are used to describe sensations, each word is vastly different than the other. “Feel” connotes a response to physical sensations, “conceive” holds reference to a response to visual or audio sensations, and “reason” sides closer to the metaphysical response to sensations. Within the three verbs provided by the speaker, there is a lexical and connotational chasm that is concocted in the remainder of this line as well as the line following.
This dissonant divide in diction drives the tension further as the discord is directed and focused more fully in the final three words of the line: “laugh or weep” (ll. 11). These two basic human emotive actions are on completely opposite sides of the spectrum, yet they are pressed together tightly like the positive sides of two magnets. These magnetic forces of expression, when pushed together literally or metaphorically, cover the chasm constructed in the beginning of the line with a taut rope that eventually allows the reader to cross the deep without the fear of falling to one side of the other. Though not entirely concluded, the speaker admonishes the reader to “embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away,” suggesting that the reader has the ability to choose whether they will embrace the mutability of physical nature and human nature, or to cast it away (ll. 12).
Regardless of what the reader will do after being shown the sheer shakiness surrounding the unstable and mutable nature of all things, the speaker provides the reader with comfort knowing that “It is the same!” (ll. 13). The speaker exclaims that “be it joy or sorrow, / The path of its departure still is free,” suggesting that though pressure is presented in the poem, as well as in the lives of the individual readers, the capability to resolve the tension is ultimately left in the hands of the reader. They are free to view the tension however they would like to. They can see it as sorrow or joy, and they can react to it by laughing or weeping. Either way, it is the same! The way in which the conflict is resolved depends solely on how each individual reader chooses to alleviate it.
To further complicate the constant stream of cacophony, the speaker concludes by claiming that the only constant in life, whether that’s physical life (as is evident in the example of the moon and the lyre in the first and second quatrains) or metaphysical life (evidenced by the emotional and existential elements evoked in the third and fourth quatrains), is mutability itself. The speaker simply concedes that “Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow,” hearkening back to the notion of “no second motion bring[ing] / One mood or modulation like the last” in the second quatrain (ll. 15, 8). No day in the past, present, or future can ever be exactly the same ever. Clouds will always cover moons, the music of long-forgotten lyres will always fade into the fog of memory, and human emotions will fluctuate as frequently as syllables succumb to succeeding syllables in a poem.
The speaker releases the pressure that has thus far been congregating in the previous fifteen lines of the poem by reiterating that the only constant character in the conundrum of choices surrounding tension is mutability itself. As the speaker states, and as Shelley strives to suggest through his utilization of contrasting imagery within selfsame stanzas and lines throughout the poem, “Naught may endure but Mutability” (ll. 16). The capitalization of the word “Mutability” gives the idea and the action pertaining to the word an almost deity-like demeanor. By ending the poem with this God-like image, the necessity for accepting the changeable nature of things generally becomes more of a charge from on high than a challenge negatively charged with the impossibility of completion. Nothing can or will ever remain the same. Nature is in constant flux. The strings of a lyre will oftentimes be discordant and out of tune. Human emotions will forever, frequently find themselves frazzled in the fray of feelings. Yet, it is through understanding the need for tension in existence that the reader is able to truly come to terms with the constant creation and resolution of tension in the poem and in their own lives.