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Shelley's "Mutability" (1821, edited 2011), with a workshop in honor of his birthday, August 4, 1792

Updated on September 18, 2013

Tuesday Workshop for Writers and Teachers

We Celebrate the Birthday of Percy Bysshe Shelley, August 4th

1. On August 4, 1792, Percy Bysshe (bish) Shelley was born into a wealthy family near Horsham, Sussex (30 miles south of London).

2. Less than 30 years later, he died when his small boat got caught in a brief but furious sea storm near Pisa, Italy on July 8, 1822.

3. Today, Thursday, August 4, 2011, we welcome you into our Tuesday Workshop for Writers and Teachers as we honor and celebrate Shelley on his 219th birthday as undeniably one of the great poets of the English language.

Shelley's Original Poem "Mutability" (1821, pub. 1824)

4. Two years after Shelley's death, his manuscript poetry began to be published in Posthumous Poems by his wife, Mrs. Mary Shelley (daughter of philosophical radical William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote "Vindication of the Rights of Women" in 1792, and died at Mary's birth in 1797).

5. One poem so published, "Mutability," was written in 1821 as one of about 33 short poems Shelley wrote during his last 18 months.

6. In spite of a rather unrelenting message (Latin mutare, to change), this poem continues to appear in many anthologies as one of Shelley's best-loved works.

7. Here is the original text as shown with extra end-of-line spacing in The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Cambridge Edition, ed. George Edward Woodberry (1855-1930) (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1901), pages 404-05.

8. Note. The abstract noun "mutability," the state of being changeable, comes from the adjective "mutable," meaning "variable, capable of, or subject to change," or further, "prone to frequent change," or even "inconstant" (as in "mutable weather patterns").

9. "Mutable" derives from a Latin adjective mutabilis meaning "changeable or variable," itself derived from a secondary meaning of the Latin verb mutare, "to move or to change."

Shelley's "Mutability" (original, 1821)

The flower that smiles to-day
    To-morrow dies;
All that we wish to stay,
    Tempts and then flies.
What is this world's delight ?
Lightning that mocks the night,
    Brief even as bright.

Virtue, how frail it is !
    Friendship how rare !
Love, how it sells poor bliss
    For proud despair !
But we, though soon they fall,
Survive their joy and all
    Which ours we call.

Whilst skies are blue and bright,
    Whilst flowers are gay,
Whilst eyes that change ere night
    Make glad the day,
Whilst yet the calm hours creep,
Dream thou -- and from thy sleep
    Then wake to weep.

Shelley's Philosophy of Universal Spiritual Love

10. Shelley from an early age was controversial, aethereal, even perceived by some to be from another world.

11. A warm-hearted idealist, he would help any unfortunate person on the spur of the moment, because he believed the regular practice of spiritual love could bring about what used to be called "the Perfectibility of Man."

12. Shelley may, however, have undercut his own noble vision of universal spiritual love with a didacticism, even in his finest poems, that attempted to over-teach readers how and what to think and do to reach that state of perfection.

13. We might, however, expect the ideal of true spiritual love to make more progress in the world if we honor our readers by approaching them with open and fair questions, even if rhetorically formed, that allow room for them to think through such things for themselves, from their own perspectives, in the contexts of their own goals and personalities, their own cultures of belief and ritual.

Opening Up Shelley's Idealism

14. Starting with a sense of awe at Shelley's stature, and wondering how best to honor him, it dawned on me, as an experienced editor with a workshop for writers, to stand up close to him and try to edit or rework his poem "Mutability" so it might better represent his ideals in today's world.

15. The question in line 5 of the first verse gave me the clue to conclude each verse with a parallel open-ended question.

16. This simple device would return resolution of each verse back to the reader as an open issue, rather than clutching onto it with only one possible answer predetermined by the poet.

17. Working from Monday to Thursday, August 1-4, 2011 within Shelley's original framework, I modernized the language and inserted concrete images for some of the passives in his unedited, and possibly never finished, original handwritten manuscript.

18. Here is the result of this sobering but exhilirating moment of editing a classic.

19. I hope you like it. Please let me know.

Shelley's "Mutability" (edited by Max Havlick, 2011)

The flower smiles today,
    tomorrow dies;
all that we wish would stay,
    to sorrow flies.
What is this world's delight?
Lightning that mocks the night?
    As brief as it is bright?!

Virtue, frail as a kiss! 
    Friendship, how rare!
Love sells its humble bliss 
    for proud despair!
But can we, when they fall,
survive their joy and all
    they brought us, great and small?

Though skies are blue and bright,
    and flowers bloom,
our eyes shut down at night,
    forestalling gloom.
While peaceful hours creep,
the world dreams on asleep -- 
    but will it wake to weep?

20. Please enter your comments in the response section below. Thank you.


Copyright (c) 2012 by The Max Havlick School, 16 W. Vermont St., Villa Park, Illinois 60181-1938, all rights reserved. We consider language skills a basic key to life, so we feature English language, literature, and spirituality for any serious adult desiring deeper skills of a productive, creative life: reading, writing, vocabulary at HS or college levels, surveys and detailed studies in great literature.

Currently we seek one or two special individuals who might like our help starting a local chapter of our school in their local area. Please contact Max or Fay if you have strong language skills and feel called to a new educational service or ministry to adults.

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    • Max Havlick profile image

      Max Havlick 6 years ago from Villa Park, Illinois

      Thank you, Sarah, for your generous support.

    • Sarah Shepherd profile image

      Sarah Shepherd 6 years ago from San Diego, California

      A very good read indeed, Max! What a beautiful poem from someone who sounds like a beautiful human being. We could all learn a lesson on spiritual love, couldn't we? I don't know of many poets, so this was very educational and enlightening for me. Thank you for sharing! Voted up and beautiful!