As a general group, English poets have a way of sinking their teeth into a particular word or idea and never letting go, like some ravenous pack of literary bloodhounds. "Mutability" is one of these ideas. William Wordsworth wrote this sonnet in the line of a long tradition of works about mutability. In fact, mutability just means "change" or "variability," but for poets it has this whole other list of connotations having to do with the transience of things on earth, the role of death in nature, and the sad idea that nothing good ever lasts. To this list of concerns Wordsworth adds his own nature-loving spin, talking about how mutability creates its own particular music, even if we humans don’t always like the tune.
Before we go further, we want to pound this one in: if you ever forget the meaning of the title of this poem, just remember that mutability = the fact that things change, die, and are reborn in nature.
Like we said, the tradition of mutability in English poetry goes way back, probably all the way to Chaucer, the granddaddy of English literature. The Renaissance poet Edmund Spenser wrote a famous unfinished fragment about "Mutabilitie" as part of his sprawling work The Fairie Queene. This fragment, known as the "Mutabilitie Cantos," described the devious adventures of a Titan goddess named Mutabilitie, who wreaks all kinds of havoc with her crazy plot to make things change. Yes, it’s just as weird and abstract as it sounds.
Shakespeare also tackled the subject of time and change in, like, all of his works. But you might notice some specific parallels between Wordsworth’s poem and King Lear, particularly in the image of a "crown of weeds," which Lear wears after he goes mad. You probably don’t want to hear a dissertation on mutability in Shakespeare's work, but if you need some more info, here’s a good, short article to look at.
Wordsworth wrote this poem around 1821 and it was published in 1822. This date is about fifteen years after Wordsworth’s most productive period, which coincided with his friendship with the equally great poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. By this point, some of the younger poets in England were already starting to consider Wordsworth to be an old hat, but this didn’t stop them from cribbing his ideas. In fact, Percy Shelley wrote a famous sonnet with the exact same title in 1924. (To be fair, he'd also written one in 1916, but we like to think Wordsworth was robbed.)
Do you realize that life goes fast
It’s hard to make the good things last
Do you realize the sun don’t go down
It’s just an illusion caused by the earth spinning ‘round.
– The Flaming Lips
The most interesting idea in "Mutability" is the idea that the essential truth of a thing remains even after its external form has "melted" away. Philosophy majors, this is your cue to go nuts: does an object (for example, a person) have any unique identity after every last trace of it has vanished from earth? Wordsworth thinks that, at the very least, everything takes part in the "music" of nature simply by being involved in natural processes. This music is a kind of truth.
"Mutability" is also a good illustration of the somewhat corny idea that, "This, too, shall pass." You know, when someone is going through a really rough time and thinks his or her misery will never end, they sometimes tell themselves, "This, too, shall pass." You know, like a mantra. But there’s a serious kernel of truth in this mantra. It’s amazing how we all tend to think that the present state of affairs will last forever, whether it’s good or bad. Politics is a good example. If you’re a liberal, you might have felt like George W. Bush would be president of the United States forever, even though you knew it wasn’t the case. And if you’re a conservative, you might feel the same way about Barack Obama. People seem to forget that in politics, as in nature and everything else, things can change with the drop of a hat.
Wordsworth uses the image of a melting frost to show how fleeting any one circumstance can be. One minute the world is covered in glistening whiteness, and the next minute all the frost has melted away. If this doesn’t seem all that profound to you, you might be one of those people who is too caught up with local concerns like money and your own well-being to appreciate the endless flux that surrounds us. Hey, we didn’t say it, Wordsworth did. In fact, we’re probably all more than a little self-involved. But poems like this one allow us to step back from whatever is consuming us at the moment – be it a school project, some pop song in your head, or your issues with a boyfriend or girlfriend – and see that we are all just notes in a grand symphony that is playing all the time outside of us.