The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 379

“Mutability,” a traditional sonnet of fourteen lines in iambic pentameter, is William Wordsworth’s meditation on change and transformation. Something that is mutable is able to shift, alter, and adapt itself, and the poet juxtaposes his reflections on the impermanence of forms to the permanence of Truth. Although grounded in concrete images, the poem addresses the concept of mutability in the abstract and entertains both positive and negative aspects of its manifestation.

In the first two lines, change is described in terms of dissolution, or breakdown. Wordsworth presents change as a kind of corruption that climbs “from low to high” and that correspondingly initiates a descent “from high to low” in that which is being altered. If thought of as a melody, dissolution is a sad or “melancholy chime,” and its inevitability is like a scale of notes “whose concord shall not fail.”

Yet even a sad tune can be pleasing, and the somber tone of the sonnet changes in the fourth line. Though melancholy, the melody is still “musical,” and its harmony is perceived by those who are not motivated by base drives and concerns, such as “crime” and “avarice.” This suggests that there is something positive about change that resonates with higher moral values and transcends immediate concerns to which a person might devote “over-anxious care.” Wordsworth makes his meaning clear in the seventh line, when he boldly and directly states, “Truth fails not.” Though even “outward forms that bear/ The longest date” disappear like frost that melts in the morning sun, the durable essence that they cloak does not. The “tower sublime” will eventually crumble, and the imprint it made will be obliterated. However, that which is known to be true is permanent and impervious to “the unimaginable touch of Time.”

In “Mutability,” Wordsworth asks the reader look beyond surfaces that are prone to change with time and appreciate the indelible truths behind them. To focus on exteriors is to see only what will decay and drop away; to see through to the core is to locate the eternal. Without denying that it is sad to contemplate the mortality and finality of things, the poet comforts readers with his belief in an intransient essence that endures and transcends and thereby gives meaning to its temporary forms.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 544

Though it dwells on the impermanence of the superficial and the transience of forms, “Mutability” is ultimately an optimistic poem. Its reassuring attitude can be attributed in large part to Wordsworth’s strategic use of metaphor and simile to express his intentions. Were he concerned solely with the dissolution of surfaces, Wordsworth might have chosen representations of death and decay to make his point. Instead, he carefully deploys images of beauty and grandeur that develop his theme of the enduring substance beneath the surface.

The first of these images is music. The poet perceives the rise from low to high of the forces of dissolution and the corresponding descent from high to low it brings about as an orchestration of notes “along a scale.” They are “awful notes,” which is to say they are capable of exciting awe in persons attuned to the nuances of their melody. To say, further, that their “concord shall not fail” is to suggest that there is an actual harmony among the notes. The “musical but melancholy chime” that most people hear is but a simple surface overlying a complex structure of counterpoint, craft, and arrangement.

Wordsworth draws his second image from the natural world, likening the changing forms in which Truth is cloaked to “frosty rime” that melts with the morning sun. Wordsworth, like other poets in the Romantic tradition, frequently looked to nature for imagery and symbols to express states of mind and yield instruction applicable to life, and his correlation of the transience of Truth’s “outward forms” with the temporarily “whitened hill and plain” of a frosty morning is inspired. It implies that the inevitable dissolution of forms, though regrettable, is natural. What is more, it reminds readers that the frosty covering of the landscape would not have significance but for the durable, permanent substance beneath that gives it shape and contour.

Finally, Wordsworth contrasts the ephemerality of human-made creations with the persistence of a constant value such as Truth. The “tower sublime,” which once stood majestically (“royally did wear/ Its crown of weeds”), is no more, having fallen into ruin. It has left no sign of its existence—no trace, even as fleeting as “Some casual shout that broke the silent air.” The image invites comparison to a similar symbol used by fellow Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, in his poem “Ozymandias,” in which a monument erected to commemorate a ruler who proclaims himself “King of Kings” has eroded to nothing over time, testifying to the foolishness of human vanity and the shortsightedness of those who attempt to take the measure of the lasting by the immediate. Further, Wordsworth’s personification of the edifice as royalty attired in regal garb, capable of shouting to break the surrounding silence, alludes that human beings, like the structures they created, are transient and impermanent.

Whereas Wordsworth develops each of these images over several lines of the sonnet, the principle that they illustrate—“Truth fails not”—takes but a fragment of a line to articulate. Indirectly, then, Wordsworth’s poetics elaborate the theme of his sonnet. The similes and metaphors he uses to express the mutable are picturesque and colorful embellishments on Truth. “Truth fails not,” even when these embellishments are stripped away or replaced by other forms.

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