Mutability: Wordsworth’s Living Balance in Poetry
By William Wordsworth
William Wordsworth’s sonnet, Mutability, articulates the paradox of poetry as a living, changing eternality. From the static truth of each individual word, to the movement of each line, to the pulsing totality of its sonnet form, the poem embodies the organic tension that animates and perpetuates poetry as an aesthetic expression of Truth. Wordsworth crafts the technical elements of the sonnet, such as its meter, rhyme scheme, and diction, in such a way to reify its imagery and thematic elements.
The meter in Mutability reflects the axiom in the middle of the sonnet’s second quatrain that “Truth fails not.” The poem does not fail in its adherence to iambic pentameter. Maintaining metrical “concord,” anapests are substituted for iambic feet only in three instances of the second and last line of the sestet: “And is no more; drop like the tower sublime” and “Or the unimaginable touch of Time.” This metrical constancy gives the poem the feel of a metronome underlying a scale of music. It underscores a certain immutability found in poetry that outlasts the ravages of Time and conveys truths that bridge generations.
The “outward form” of a sonnet arguably is its fourteen-line rhyme scheme. The rhyme scheme of Mutability “melts” away in its sestet. The two Petrarchan quatrains introduce a traditional ABBA, ACCA rhyme scheme. The sestet, however, dissolves into a less-ordered DAC, DCA. Despite this dissolution of rhyme, Wordsworth’s sonnet begins and ends with the same rhyme, “climb” and Time,” like a scale of music that begins and ends with the same note.
The poem’s constancy of meter contrasted with the melting effect of its rhyme scheme in the sestet echoes formally the turn of the poem that occurs in the crease between the second quatrain and the sestet: “Truth fails not; but her outward forms that bear / The longest date do melt like frosty rime.” Although the “outward form” of the sonnet—its rhyme scheme—begins to crumble, the sonnet’s “Truth” as represented in its rigid iambic pentameter “fails not” until it faces “the unimaginable touch of Time” at which point anapests replace two of the five iambs. The formal properties of Mutability embody its thematic elements.
The use of a musical trope in the sonnet’s first quatrain picks up the feeling of a metronome’s beat, effected by the poem’s steady meter:
From low to high doth dissolution climb,
And sink from high to low, along a scale
Of awful notes, whose concord shall not fail:
A musical but melancholy chime.
In this quatrain, mutability is likened to movement up and down on a scale of music. The emphasis is upon the musical equality with which “dissolution” both “climbs” and “sinks.” The quatrain’s argument is that change, like a scale of music, finds its inherent worth in its capacity for motion and life; change, regardless of that which it modulates from, ought to be valued for it is indicative of life in an object.
The next quatrain, however, strikes a dissonant note, which turns the sonnet’s quatrains into its sestet. Change is no longer glorified but disparaged with the introduction of the image of a matutinal frost melting away at mid-day:
Truth fails not; but her outward forms that bear
The longest date do melt like frosty rime,
That in the morning whitened hill and plain
And is no more.
Thus, Wordsworth’s use of imagery parallels his employment of a contrasting meter and rhyme scheme to enhance the tension between the value of permanence and transience in poetry.
The musical, then seasonal images of the first nine lines, which respectively represent the value of a living change and a lasting permanence, give way to a third image which synthesizes elements of the previous two. This last image is of a crumbling, yet regal tower that disintegrates with the force of a shout:
Drop like the tower sublime
Of yesterday, which royally did wear
His crown of weeds, but could not even sustain
Some casual shout that broke the silent air,
Or the unimaginable touch of Time.
Royalty, towers, and crowns are symbols of permanence. Yet, we see in these five lines a “tower sublime / Of yesterday,” “a crown of weeds,” and a royalty of a bygone day. The enjambment between a “tower sublime” and “Of yesterday” punctuates the obsoleteness of the tower’s sublimity. Furthermore, these symbols of permanence are wrecked by a simple “shout” and the “unimaginable touch of Time.”
However, even though Wordsworth ends the poem with an image of the mutable toppling the eternal, the poem still stands before the reader’s eyes in the timeless form of a sonnet—a witness to the type of poetic permanence which, like Truth, “bears the longest date” and yet “fails not.” Wordsworth uses the formal elements of the sonnet to echo the tension between the roles played in poetry by unfailing Truth and the oft-opposing vivacity of its protean forms. Mutability is a poem that balances both the breaking down of formal elements, which often lends life to a poem, and the adherence to them, which imbues the poem with timelessness. Poetry, like Wordsworth’s sonnet, is a balance between vivid realities of the transient present and the immutable truths that tie together all tenses and times.