Mutability. Percy Bysshe Shelley and the Insignificance of Humanity

A close Analysis

Essay, 2014

6 Pages, Grade: 65.0


‘Mutability’ Percy Bysshe Shelley and the Insignificance of Humanity

‘ Mutability ’ employs traditional conventions of the Lyric poem as it is “brief and discontinuous, emphasising sound and pictorial imagery rather than narrative”, in order to present the concept of life as ephemeral.1 Shelley is a poet shaped by the sense “that there are narrow limits to what human beings can know with certainty.”2Mutability ’ reflects this notion as Shelley undermines human importance within a world in which nothing is constant. In his ‘ A Defence of Poetry ’ he argues that for man to be “greatly good… the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own” and therefore this essay shall consider the way Shelley uses ‘ Mutability ’ in order to educate readers on humanities fleeting and irrelevant nature.3

By definition ‘Mutable’ is the “disposition of change, variableness and inconsistency”.4

Shelley explores this notion of ‘change’ as the only constant that individuals can rely upon, with the overarching message of the poem being: “Nought may endure but Mutability”.5 By capitalising ‘Mutability’ Shelley modifies the noun to become a proper noun thus causing it to become a focal point in the sentence. This final proclamation heightens the permanence of impermanence. Ironically, both structurally and visually Shelley presents a poem which is consistent. The interlocking rhyme, ABAB, is continual throughout producing a regular rhythm. The nature of the chain rhyme, in addition to the iambic pentameter of the poem it provides a steady progression with no indication of finalisation. The lack of a definitive ending creates a sense of movement that will seemingly continue through the end of the poem and therefore the consistency of the form contradicts the content. Shelley targets the concept of change, professing “Mans yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow” as the universe is fundamentally mutable and yet the form denotes constancy. This dichotomy between change and consistency represents Shelley’s thesis that mutability is the only thing that remains the same. Through this observation the reader can draw the conclusion that humanity is not an omnipotent or timeless species, rather it becomes a fleeting concept that falls subject to the ever changing universe. This is further identifiable in the visual aspect of the poem as whilst each stanza is 4 lines long and undeviating, lines 2 and 4 are indented causing a change in structure which is continued throughout the poem; change has become consistent.

For Shelley, educating readers was crucial to poetry. He believed that verse had the ability to “lif[t] the veil from the hidden beauty of the world and mak[e] familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.”6 Arguably, ‘ Mutability ’ lifts the veil off human importance by demonstrating individual insignificance. Shelley initialises this thesis through his slight manipulation of the Lyric Poem. Traditionally the Lyric Poem focused on the “thoughts and attitudes… immediate to the dramatic speaker” yet ‘ Mutability ’ directly implicates the reader.7 The poem begins with the inclusive subject pronoun “we”, causing both the reader and Shelley to become the subject of the sentence.8 This adaptation of the traditional Lyric poem draws specific attention to Shelley’s desire to educate, or speak directly to his readers rather than an indulgent insight into the narrative voice. The line “Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away” embodies this as the embedded command within the line presents the reader with an alternative way to view humanity.9

Shelley depicts human insignificance through his use of imagery. In the first Stanza, humanity is metaphorically compared to a ‘cloud’: “We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon”.10 Shelley places humanity within the realm of nature implying that both phenomenon’s co-exit. However, the metaphor develops as humanity is likened to “forgotten lyres” in the second stanza.11 The enjambment between the two stanzas creates a correlation between the two objects, suggesting humanity exists in both the natural and the materialistic world. Furthermore, humanity has been grouped together and standardised, diminishing human individuality as Shelley (using the simile of a lyre) suggests we “give various response[s] to each varying blast”, or in other words, humanity reacts to one another in an indistinguishable manner.12 To be the same is to be ultimately unidentifiable and thus insignificant, furthered by the fact the comparisons in which Shelley adopts to represent humanity fade into nothing. For example, the clouds are “lost for ever”, whilst the Lyre is “forgotten”.13

Humans do not have control over their own fate in ‘ Mutability ’ . A cloud is a product of mother-nature and as the poem indicates it only serves to “veil” the moon, it does not protect it.14

Similarly the lyre must be played in order to make music and fulfil its purpose; it is further weakened as a result of its “frail frame”.15 These comparisons serve to quell human importance as they demonstrate humanities interdependence on one another and nature. Shelley, heightens human dependency by augmenting the power of the mind. Within ‘ Mutability ’ “A dream has power” rather than the individual who is dreaming.16 Equivalently, “One wandering thought pollutes the day”, implying emotions have control over the individual.17 Shelley therefore gives agency to the mind over the physical body. This is reflected in the structure of the lines in stanza three:

“We rest. - A dream has power to poison sleep We rise. - One wandering thought pollutes the day”18

The abrupt full stop emphasises the physical act of the individual, causing the bodily action to become short and factual. The emotional consequence of these actions which implicate the mind, such as ‘thoughts’ and ‘dreams’ literally take up more space in the line, forcing the reader to indulge in the unconscious. Essentially, Shelley removes humanities control by placing power in the mind and in nature.


1 Patrick Colm Hogan, The Mind and its stories: Narratives Universals and Human emotion (Cambridge: Cambridge university of press, 2003), p.152.

2 Deidre Shauna Lynch and Jack Stillinger, The Norton Anthology of English Literature Ninth Edition: The romantic Period, volume D (London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012), p 750.

3 Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘A Defence of Poetry’, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature Ninth Edition: The Romantic Period, Volume D, ed. By Deidre Shauna Lynch and Jack Stillinger (London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012), pp.856 - 869 (p.862).

4 “Mutability, n.”, OED Online (Oxford University press, September 2014) <> [Accessed 18th November 2014].

5 Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Mutability’, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature Ninth Edition: The Romantic Period, Volume D, ed. By Deidre Shauna Lynch and Jack Stillinger (London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012), pp.751 - 752 (p.752).

6 Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘The Defence of Poetry’, p.862.

7 W.K. Wimsatt Jr. and M. C. Beardsley, ‘The intentional Fallacy’, The Sewanee Review, Vol. 54 (1946), pp. 468-488 (p. 470).

8 Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Mutability’, p. 751.

9 Ibid., p.752.

10 Ibid., p.751.

11 Ibid., p. 751.

12 Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Mutability’, p. 751.

13 Ibid., p. 751.

14 Ibid., p.751.

15 Ibid., p.751.

16 Ibid., p. 751.

17 Ibid., p. 751.

18 Ibid., p.751.

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Mutability. Percy Bysshe Shelley and the Insignificance of Humanity
A close Analysis
University of Sheffield
English Literature
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Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mutability, Humanity, Insignificance
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Laura Marsden (Author), 2014, Mutability. Percy Bysshe Shelley and the Insignificance of Humanity, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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