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“Nought may endure but Mutability:” Examining Shelley’s Opinions on Change

Throughout several of his poems, Percy Bysshe Shelley celebrates mutability and takes comfort in the fact that change is inevitable. In “Mutability,” Shelley suggests that constant change is positive because it means that no ill feeling can ever last too long. While one cannot be certain about most things, one can depend on the inevitability of change and hope that the change will bring good. In “Ozymandias” and “England 1918,” Shelley takes comfort in the fact that change is unavoidable because it ensures that tyrants cannot hold onto their power forever. It does not matter how horrible they are — all tyrants eventually fall into the annals of history. However, while Shelley appears to accept that change is inevitable, he rejects those who change their opinions. In “To Wordsworth,” Shelley suggests that because Wordsworth changes his character and his values, he ceases to exist. Ironically, even though Shelley claims to know that change is inevitable, when it comes to changing one’s beliefs or opinions, he considers that person to no longer exist. Furthermore, while Shelley takes comfort in change, he is not prepared to actively create it. In “The Mask of Anarchy,” Shelley advocates for a passive resistance, essentially telling the people to allow tyrants to trample them. However, this approach feels far to passive to actually generate change. While Shelley appears to celebrate mutability, several of his works suggests that he unwilling to actively create change, and rejects change when it comes to one’s opinions and beliefs.

In “Mutability,” Shelley celebrates the inevitability of change. The first two similes of the poem align change with the wind, comparing human existence with clouds and lyres, both of which are at the mercy of the mind. Wind is unpredictable and uncontrollable, as well as inevitable. The speaker discusses the various shifts in the clouds’ existence, as one moment they “speed, and gleam, and quiver,/Streaking the darkness radiantly! — yet soon/Night closes round, and they are lost for ever” (Shelley 2-4). The clouds are controlled by the wind, which is uncontrollable itself, and inevitably they are blown away. Similarly, “forgotten lyres,” or harps that are no longer played are left alone for the wind to control (5). The changes are always constant, whether taking away the clouds or streaking them across the sky, playing pleasing melodies or not. Just as one cannot stop or control the wind, one cannot stop or control change. Furthermore, the lyres “give various response to each varying blast,” (6) and to this “frail frame no second motion brings/One mood or modulation like the last” (7-8). Each gust of wind creates something new, just as each change will bring something different. The speaker encourages one to “embrace fond woe, or cast [one’s] cares away,” because “it is the same! —For be it joy or sorrow,/The path of its departure still is free” (12-14). The speaker argues that whether good or bad, it will all unavoidably pass eventually, so one should embrace change as it comes. The speaker takes comfort in mutability and in the fact that nothing lasts forever. There is solace in the constancy of change, as “man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow; Nought may endure but Mutability” (15-16). There is a lot of hope and reassurance in that one must only endure something for so long, before inevitably a change will come. Mutability is very important for Shelley; it gives him hope that change will come and nothing can stay that bad for too long. Shelley evidently not only recognizes the inevitability of change, but also celebrates it and takes comfort in it.

Ironically, even though Shelley knows change is unavoidable, he rejects Wordsworth’s change in character completely. “To Wordsworth” not only laments change, but suggests that Wordsworth ceases to exist because of his change. Shelley suggests that change is celebrated, but is against changes in character, stressing his belief of how it is important to stay true to oneself. However, Shelley mourns Wordsworth as though he “shouldst cease to be,” essentially rejecting the change instead of just lamenting it (14). While Shelley is “much disappointed” in the “growing political and religious conservatism of William Wordsworth” (92 note 1), to claim he is dead while he is still alive rejects the change in Wordsworth’s beliefs. It is ironic that Shelley knows change is inevitable, yet feels he has been left “to grieve/Thus having been,” rejecting the changed, still living version of Wordsworth (13-14). While earlier, Shelley encourages people to embrace change, good or bad, “To Wordsworth” presents a contradictory message that rejecting changes and proclaiming someone dead when they are not is also an acceptable way to cope with change.

Shelley takes comfort in mutability as it gives him hope that things can and will change. Shelley’s political stance was anti-monarchical, proclaiming himself a democrat. King George the III reigned for the entirety of Shelley’s lifetime, and at the time held the longest ruling of the country in history. The political climate of the times inspired many of Shelley’s poems, and his hope for the end of tyranny was the inevitability of change. A popular example of this is “Ozymandias,” which is the Greek name for Ramses II, Pharaoh of Egypt during the Exodus. The totalitarian rule of Pharaoh can be compared to that of King George the III, as the speaker notes that the “passions read…yet survive” (6-7). On the sculpture of Ramses, there is an inscription that reads: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,/Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” (10-11). The speaker mocks Ozymandias by juxtaposing this inscription with the reality that:

“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away” (12-14).

The sands of time have literally wiped away the work of Ramses II, no matter how great and powerful he was in his time. Shelley reiterates the impermanence of power in “England in 1918,” which is a clearer statement of his current political situation. The speaker expresses their dissatisfaction with the “old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King” (1) and the current situation of “a people starved and stabbed in th’untilled field” (7). The speaker turns to time, and hopes that “a glorious Phantom may/Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day” (13-14). The inevitability that things will change despite how long they may last for or how great they may be in their time comforts Shelley. Mutability consoles his frustration with the tyranny of his own time.

However, even though Shelley takes comfort in mutability, he is not willing to actively generate it. In “The Mask of Anarchy,” Shelley advocates for a passive resistance against the oppressors:

“Let the horsemen’s scimitars

Wheel and flash, like sphere less stars

Thirsting to eclipse their burning

In a sea of death and mourning.

Stand ye calm and resolute,

Like a forest close and mute,

With folded arms and looks which are

Weapons of unvanquished war” (315-322).

The speaker tells the people to allow themselves to be literally slaughtered while they stand there with their arms crossed. They are suggesting that if one does not give in to the fighting of the tyrants, there is no war to be won, and therefore no war to be had at all. The speaker argues that if one “look[s] upon them as they slay/Till their rage has died away…Then they will return with shame” (346-348). This approach seems far too optimistic; the idea that tyrants will stop if they are not pushed back can have tragic consequences. While one would hope that Shelley was right and that it would end the cycle of violence, the speaker’s controversial advice to just allow oneself to be slaughtered feels too passive to create change. As a result, Shelley’s celebration of change appears to be at odds with his willingness to actively create change. While he may believe that passive resistance will cause change, it feels more like an easy way to relinquish one’s responsibility to make change and instead, leave it up to time and mutability.

Shelley’s poems about mutability originally appear to celebrate and take comfort in the inevitability of change. However, upon closer inspection it appears that he rejects change when it comes to changes in character, and is not necessarily willing to actively create change. A lot of Shelley’s writing is about the necessity of staying true to oneself, and he himself was known for doing this. Despite being unpopular in his own day because of his extreme view for the time, he did not retract any of his sentiments. For example, at Oxford Shelley “was hauled before a disciplinary committee where he refused to deny he had written another essay “proving” God did not exist, and was expelled” (Furness). As a result, one can understand why he had so much trouble with Wordsworth’s change of beliefs and spoke of him as though he were dead. Shelley is evidently trying to break the cycle of violence. However, as an advocate for change, it is still surprising that he would suggest an entirely passive approach.

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