William Wordsworth – Mutability


Wordsworth’ sonnet considers the idea of impermanence in several different spheres: human life, and the idea of mortality, artistic style and aesthetics, and historical and political change. ‘Mutability’ is reflected in the form of the sonnet, which incorporates conventional rhyme scheme and metre but gradually strays away from it. The poet’s attitude to change is apprehensive but on the whole hopeful, asserting the existence of an underlying absolute truth and the benignity of ‘Time’s guiding hand. The image which opens the poem is difficult to pin down, and hangs to a large extent on the equally difficult word ‘dissolution’. We might read in the word the ideas of breaking apart, reduction and disappearance, as well as a resemblance to ‘disillusionment’. Hence at first the attitude of the poem seems negative – troubled by a sense of loss or weakness. It is striking then the assertiveness with which this ‘dissolution climbs’, a rising motion symbolic of strength and positive change. Then with the antithesis of line two the action changes again to that of a soaring bird – rising and falling alternately. The image might be reflecting the cyclical but beautiful movements of change – dramatized in the syntax itself which causes us to repeatedly reevaluate our perception of the poem. It is interesting that the dominant feature of this cycle is ‘dissolution’, as if the destructive rather than the creative process is what drives change. The ideas remain in a sphere of totally abstract sphere until line 3, where ‘awful notes’ introduces the idea of a musical score, and also implies the presence of a human element in the poem – someone in ‘awe’ of these ‘notes’. For the first time then we are given some emotional response to these movements of ‘dissolution’, although the vagueness of the word ‘awful’ doesn’t distinguish between its ‘painful, terrible’ denotation and the meaning of simply ‘deeply affecting’. There is only certainty in the notion that these ‘notes’ will be beautiful, with ‘concord’ drawing in the Romantic ideal of poetry as harmonizing and therapeutic. We are now given a far more concrete image, with the poet’s clear disdain for those who, in his view, live in ignorance of this music’. It is a music which on some level suggests the creative-destructive processes of Art, but also casts the shadow of mortality in the ‘melancholy chime’ of a clock counting away a person’s life, and the biblical connotations of ‘avarice’ – a subdued allusion to the folly of ‘building up one’s treasures on earth’. The statement ‘Truth fails not’ is both structurally and conceptually at the heart of the poem. Its strength lies in its positioning and directness, and the way it retrospectively clarifies all the abstracted ideas that precede it. The ‘awful notes’, and hence the knotty term ‘dissolution’, are now resolved into a simple concept of ‘truth’ – linked by the fact that it also ‘shall not fail’. We see that the substitution fits 0 truth also governs the artistic process, contains within it the ideas of destruction and creation, and seems ‘awful’ in the light of mortality. As these more airy terms fade away, the remainder of the poem is fittingly more fixed in its imagery. The process we have just witnessed is then re-examined within the idea of poetic aesthetics, ‘rime’, which ‘melt’ away to leave a changed landscape but one not altered in essence. It is perhaps a slightly optimistic view of essential meaning, that it should be just waiting for us under a thin and transient set of values, rather than essentially bound up in them. This is the poem at its most confident – its simplistic perception of truth is tempered somewhat by the ambivalent final image. The ‘tower sublime’ we see collapse at the end of the poem can be seen as a second metaphor for poetic endeavour – following on from the first quite naturally through the semi colon. The ‘crown of weeds’ on the ruined castle’s tower might be parallel to the frost of changeable aesthetic value of the previous image. Yet here it is not simply the weeds that disappear, but rather the entire structure – what we might have thought to be the unfailing truth beneath. The image appears much more ambivalent for several reasons. Firstly what had been implicitly identified as unchanging by the poet is actually subject to ‘dissolution’ after all, secondly the ‘weeds’ of impermanent value judgement seem to have actually damaged the structure of truth beneath them, as the roots of weed gradually break apart rock. Finally it is a ‘casual shout’ in ‘silent air’ that lands the final blow, rather than the brutal but beautiful music of mortality which opened the poem. Wordsworth’s answer is troubled but reasonably hopeful. In the ‘touch of Time’ we see a reappearance of an absolute. What is now doubtful is the poet’s ability to identify or interpret it; ‘mutability’ is in fact far more prevalent than was suggested in the ‘frosty rime’ image. It might even appear that events progress ‘casually’, without regard for any unfailing universal governing pattern. The poet’s superiority in being uniquely able to hear that music is therefore revealed as hollow. However, ‘Time’ itself, although its workings are ‘unimaginable’ to a human observer, is the singular authority – underpinning just as before, but also, crucially, undermining.

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