The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 544 words.)