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Featured Poem: Mutability by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Written by The Reader, 9th April 2012

This week's Featured Poem has been selected by Assistant Development Manager Sophie Povey, who is enjoying this evocative piece by Shelley...

I recently bought myself a collection of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry. Having promised my partner that I will stop buying books until we’ve moved house in the summer (it’ll be our fifth move, and he’s not a fan of the endless boxes of books that have to come with us), I planned to have a quick look through before sneaking it on to the bookcase, where it could hide until after the move. However, this poem caught my eye and I am finding that I keep wanting to go back to it. I’m not entirely sure why. It is both uncomfortable and reassuring – the ‘single dream’ that has the potency to ‘poison sleep’, like the ‘wandering thought that pollutes the day’ too easily soil experience, yet the mutability of the poem’s feeling emphasises that these unsettling moods quickly pass. I like the music of the poem, the ‘dissonant blast’ punching through the second stanza jarring against the quiet stillness of the first and I’m interested in the way that the strings have to ‘respond’ to the blast rather than the blast being a product of the strings movement.

Each time I read the poem, something different catches my attention or its meaning slightly changes; ‘Man's yesterday may ne'er be like his morrow’ at first sounds rather reassuring – that lingering unease that accompanies a worrying thought or a bad dream will pass – we only have to ‘endure’ negative experiences for a finite amount of time. However, on second reading, I find myself more aware of the transience of my own thoughts and feelings, with the certainty of Shelley’s final line ‘Nought may endure but Mutability’ striking a much lonelier chord. It is a fascinating poem that I shall continue to return to.


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.


As an additional Easter bank-holiday treat, why not dip into our collection of Easter themed poems from The Reader Online archive: the perfect accompaniment to any eggs or other goodies you have left-over...

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