What are the major ideas and poetic conventions found in William Wordsworth's poem Mutability?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Specific examples of ideas, conventions, and techniques found in William Wordsworth’s sonnet titled “Mutability” include the following:

  • assonance, or the repetition of the same vowel sounds, as in the long “i” sounds of “high” and “climb” in line 1.
  • chiasmus, a figure of speech in which words are “criss-crossed,” as in “From low to high” in line 1 and “from high to low” in line 2.  Note that this figure of speech, which changes the pattern of the words without changing the words themselves, is relevant to the major theme of the poem: that the world is full of changes, and that indeed change is, ironically, the only thing one can depend on.  Paradoxically, only the fact of change does not change.
  • balanced, contrasting verbs (a version of chiasmus), as in the use of “climb” in line 1 and “sink” in line 2.
  • onomatopoeia, in which a word sounds like the thing it describes, as in the use of “low” in line 2.
  • enjambment, or lack of punctuation at the end of a line, as in line 2.
  • alliteration, or repetition of the same consonant sounds, as in the repetition of “m” and “l” sounds in line 4:

A musical but melancholy chime . . .

  • juxtaposition, or placing different things right next to each other, in the way that the very brief statement “Truth fails not” (line 7) is preceded and followed by very lengthy statements.
  • personification, as in the way Truth is personified as a female in line 7.
  • similes, or comparisons using “like” or “as,” as when the speaker says in line 8 that the outward forms “do melt like frosty rime.”

This sonnet has the following fairly unusual rhyme scheme: abba acca dac dca.  It is as if, even in writing this sonnet, Wordsworth wanted to “change things up” and do something different – a motive highly appropriate to a poem about mutability. He adopts the sonnet genre but modifies one of its main conventions.

Interestingly, the meter of the first six lines is steadily iambic pentameter. In other words, each line has ten syllables, with each odd syllable unaccented and each even syllable is accented. However, when the speaker gets to the brief, crucial claim at the beginning of line 7 – “Truth fails not” – each single syllable gets heavily accented.  Truth, in other words, is the one thing that is immutable, even if its forms are constantly changing. The sudden switch from regular, even predictable iambic pentameter to something completely different illustrates, ironically, the theme of mutability even as the speaker is asserting an exception to mutability.

In this way and many others, then, Wordsworth uses conventions and techniques to emphasize his poem's themes.

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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The poetic techniques used in "Mutability" by William Wordsworth fall into devices related to sound and those related to ideas. The poem is a fourteen line Petrarchan sonnet using the metrical scheme of iambic pentameter. It uses several other figures of speech such as chiasmus (criss-cross composition), alliteration, metaphor, simile, and assonance.

The main idea is one often expressed in the Latin phrases "tempus fugit" (time flees [away from those trying to grasp it]) and "sic transit gloria mundi" (so pass away the glories of worldly things). With there are eternal and religious Truths, time causes all things and people and even human ideas in the world to decay into nothingness. Thus the things of the world (including people) are like ice which melts (and then as water evaporates).


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