Percy Bysshe Shelley first published poetry in 1810 as an 18 year old undergraduate at Oxford University and he wrote consistently until 1822 when he tragically drowned, a month short of his 30th birthday.
He is widely considered to be one of the finest of the Romantic poets.
His poem Mutability, was published in 1816 in the collection Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude: And Other Poems. It is a poem dedicated to the only constant in life – change.
We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;
How restlessly they speed, and gleam, and quiver,
Streaking the darkness radiantly!–yet soon
Night closes round, and they are lost forever:
Shelley was a key member of a close circle of visionary writers, thinkers, philosophers and artists of his day, including Lord Byron, John Keats, Leigh Hunt, Thomas Love Peacock, William Godwin and Godwin’s daughter and Shelley’s own second wife Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Shelley was influenced by other Romantic writers such as William Wordsworth, William Blake and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Shelley, an aristocrat by birth, was an iconoclast. He was famously bullied at Eton for refusing to take part in fagging and later expelled after only a year at Oxford for publications which contained anti-monarchical, anti-war and anti-religious sentiment.His thoughts on vegetarianism, social justice, the rights of the working class, feminism, and non-violent resistance influenced many who came after him.
Or like forgotten lyres, whose dissonant strings
Give various response to each varying blast,
To whose frail frame no second motion brings
One mood or modulation like the last.
Several months after being expelled from Oxford for atheism, at the tender age of 19, Shelley eloped with 16 year old Harriet Westbrook. After a failed relationship which ended with Harriet’s suicide, Shelley married Mary Wollstonecraft, the brilliant daughter of Shelley’s idol, political philosopher, William Godwin.
More traveling yielded Shelley and Mary fruitful friendships with Lord Byron, Leigh Hunt and John Keats. This fueled not only Shelley’s creativity but seemed to catalyse the creativity of others. He himself left an impressive body of lyric and epic poetry while his wagers with Byron and Mary Wollstonecraft were effective in producing their great works, Don Juan and Frankenstein respectively.
We rest.–A dream has power to poison sleep;
We rise.–One wandering thought pollutes the day;
We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep;
Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away:
During his life, most publishers and journals declined to publish his work for fear of being arrested for either blasphemy or sedition. As a result Shelley enjoyed little but infamy during his own lifetime. Nevertheless, his works had profound influence subsequent political and literary thinkers such as Karl Marx, Leo Tolstoy and Mahatmah Gandhi.
Percy and Mary lost all their young children except one to infant illness. A number of Shelley’s close friends died prematurely including Keats of whom he wrote the poem, Adonais. He himself perished tragically young.
It is the same!–For, be it joy or sorrow,
The path of its departure still is free:
Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow;
Nought may endure but Mutability.
Mutability mediates on the permanence in impermanence.
The transitory and ephemeral nature of human life and the works of humanity are common in Shelley’s poetry. In life, we lack true freedom. In sleep, the mind cannot control the unconscious and in waking, the path of departure of sorrow or joy is not under our control.
Shelley’s conclusion is to embrace the truth that the only constant in life, is change.
In “A Defense of Poetry,” Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote that:
Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
He felt that poetry and poetic language reveals the truth. His legacy and his truth have lived on long after his premature death.