Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 491

Although “Mutability” stands on its own as an inspiring rumination on change and permanence, it resonates even more powerfully when read in the context of the other Ecclesiastical Sketches. Wordsworth wrote these sonnets as an exploration of the history of the Anglican Church and a reflection on how the church had adapted outwardly to changing circumstances of history and cultural evolution. In his examination of numerous aspects of the church, from doctrinal teachings to translation of the Bible, bestowing of sacraments, and even the architecture of chapels, Wordsworth tries to uncover the unchanging foundation of the faith. “Mutability,” with its conviction of the persistence of fundamental truths, represents the culmination of his quest.

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It is ironic that Wordsworth would write a poem of this kind inspired by observations of an organized religion, since he is traditionally thought of as a revolutionary and poet of the people, who found spirituality and morality not in cathedrals, but in nature and in social relationships with his fellow man. However, “Mutability” is noticeably devoid of religious allusions. Its simple observation that “Truth fails not,” even though its outward forms are forever in flux, might just as easily have been inspired by his appreciation of a work of art or his study of human behavior. Wordsworth believed that poetry could be made of “every subject which can interest the human mind,” and “Mutability” yields the same universal lesson whether it is read in a religious or a secular context.

Wordsworth wrote “Mutability” comparatively late in his career, when most of the work that distinguished him as a leading poet in the Romantic idiom was already behind him. The poem is considered an example of his enduring visionary brilliance because its themes and devices are consistent with those in the landmark poetry of his youth. As a poet, Wordsworth was renowned for his skill at seeing signs of the eternal in common experiences and relationships. His strongest poems are full of encounters with ordinary people and glimpses of natural scenes that are the catalysts for profound spiritual revelations and moral insights. All of these he described in a language that strove to emulate the thoughts and words of ordinary people. Although “Mutability” is clearly a work of poetic compression and orchestration, its images typify the simplified art that Wordsworth sought to write. A fading melody, a frost-covered landscape in the morning sunlight, and a ruined tower all become symbols of the impermanent and unlasting.

Significantly, Wordsworth never mentions death in his poem. Although the reader is left to infer that human mortality correlates with the dissolution and decline that Wordsworth observes in nature and the landscape, there is something constant that persists even after exterior forms fall away. The optimistic spirit of the poem lies in its suggestion that the transient is merely a patina over the permanent, and that everything in the world—nature, humankind, and humankind’s creations—is joined by the eternity of Truth.

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