Saturday, April 27, 2013

Mutability, Revisited: "We Are As Clouds That Veil The Midnight Moon"

My previous post contained the epigraph to Canto VI of Edmund Spenser's Mutabilitie.  I'm afraid that this leads me in a simplistic fashion to the following poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

But, come to think of it, "mutability" is at bottom pretty much the subject of all poetry (and of all art), isn't it?  Thus, following the thread of mutability is bound to lead anywhere and everywhere.  "All flesh is grass," et cetera.

Bertram Priestman (1868-1951), "Clouds over the Orwell"


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 for ever:

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.

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:

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.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Alastor (1816).  "Lyres" (line 5) refers to Aeolian (wind) harps.

Oddly, for all of the poem's Romantic flourishes and conceits, my favorite line is:  "The path of its departure still is free."

Bertram Priestman, "The Sun-Veiled Hills of Wharfedale" (1917)

As is usually the case, the Japanese and Chinese poets can boil this mutability business down to a few lines.

Every single thing
Changes and is changing
Always in this world.
Yet with the same light
The moon goes on shining.

Saigyo (1118-1190) (translated by Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite), in The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse (1964).

Mind you, I am always ready and willing to abandon myself to the moon, clouds, winds, and sighing Aeolian harps of Shelley's Romanticism. However, the down-to-earth, yet gentle, words of Saigyo hit home with greater emotional force (for me, at least).  Perhaps this is due to the lovely saving grace of Saigyo's final two lines, which put everything into place in a quiet and -- once again -- gentle way:  "Yet with the same light/The moon goes on shining."

Bertram Priestman, "Kilnsey Crag, Wharfedale" (1929)


Bob said...

For this mutability symposium, I offer Emerson's poetic epigraph to his rarely-read essay "Illusions":

Flow, flow the waves hated,
Accursed, adored,
The waves of mutation:
No anchorage is.
Sleep is not, death is not;
Who seem to die live.
House you were born in,
Friends of your spring-time,
Old man and young maid,
Day’s toil and its guerdon,
They are all vanishing,
Fleeing to fables,
Cannot be moored.
See the stars through them,
Through treacherous marbles.
Know, the stars yonder,
The stars everlasting,
Are fugitive also,
And emulate, vaulted,
The lambent heat-lightning,
And fire-fly’s light.
When thou dost return
On the wave’s circulation,
Beholding the shimmer,
The wild dissipation,
And, out of endeavor
To change and to flow,
The gas become solid,
And phantoms and nothings
Return to be things,
And endless imbroglio
Is law and the world,—
Then first shalt thou know,
That in the wild turmoil,
Horsed on the Proteus,
Thou ridest to power,
And to endurance.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bob: thank you for the poem, and for the link to Emerson's essay, neither of which I have seen before. I agree that the poem fits well with the theme of mutability.

Thank you very much for stopping by again.