Nineteenth-Century Poetry – 4 (Shelley’s Mutability & Recommendations)

Transcription of Allen’s class at Naropa, October, 1981, on “Nineteenth Century Poetry” continues from here.   Allen discusses Shelley‘s poem, “Mutability”

AG: So the reason I was interested in mutability is I keep getting into these arguments about Buddhism in which these bases of Buddhism are accused of being alien to western philosophy – alien to Faustian western philosophy, which actually assumes endless progress towards a fixed goal of some)… or endless progress toward greater and greater progress.  Progress toward more progress, (which is basically a 19th century idea, actually).  And the more I think about it the more I think its folly.  I was in Toronto (Canada) yesterday talking with a student of Marshall McLuhan (who (recently) died), and apparently McLuhan’s take in the long run is that we should stop everything – that the whole idea of progress was a neurotic mania and it was excluding us from realizing where we were now so that nobody had time to live now in the now and was always acting out of a motive that was involved with planning for living some other time in the future, rather than completely existing in the present.  And it was distracting everybody from noticing what was going on around them.  It was like a maniac who had a fixed idea in mind that sooner or later he would get his theory together and then he would show everybody, and so refused to wash dishes or empty the toilet bowl or clean out the garbage.  And that was the image of the entire civilization – not emptying its garbage and not cleaning up its own dishes, but because of an expectation that everything in the progressive future would be solved, like, leaving nuclear waste around, assuming that progress will solve it and not taking care of it themselves.

Shelley – “Mutability” – “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.” – (That’s we – that’s us he’s talking about) – “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.”

Well, it’s just (a) pedestrian, kind of pedestrian, statement.  Except there’s a funny thing hidden in it –  “We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon.” – So there is one fixed point -“the midnight moon”.  The clouds pass but the moon is there.  So he’s still got some fixed reference point.  As he does in the end of….

The reason I was doing this (is) I was wondering what his idea of mutability was -whether it was absolute or not.  So he says, we are mutable but “Nought may endure but Mutability.”  But hidden in the first line:  “We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon.”  If he means the midnight moon to be some kind of symbol of permanence, or maybe just the moon’s another cloud later on, but meanwhile, if you look in the sky when there’s a moonlit night, those clouds pass and we’re just like the clouds.

He’s got another line in the end of the poem “Adonais” that says, “The One remains, the many change and pass;/Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly..”  – ( The mutability is “Earth’s shadows fly”) – “Life, like a dome of many-colored glass,/Stains the white radiance of Eternity/,Until Death tramples it to fragments.” – (So he’s got a heaven-light and a white radiance of eternity that’s stained by the eyeball and the ear – stained by human senses or, in other words, the light passes through us and is refracted and we change – the shadows fly, “Earth’s shadows fly,” but One remains:  “The One remains, the many change and pass.”

How many believe that?  Does anybody here believe that, believes that’s so, actually?
Have you thought about it?   (to Student(s))  You know this poem? – You know those lines? –

Well, he says, “The One remains.”   These are the most famous lines in Shelley, and some of the most famous lines in English literature.  Have you heard (them)?  How many have heard these before?  This line. [Allen asks again, looking for a show of hands]  Just one?  You have, Ida (sic), haven’t you?  Yeah.  But how many, literally, have not heard this before in the class?  David, (sic) you’ve read this, haven’t you?  So why don’t you raise your hand?  I’m just trying to figure out who has heard what.  Okay.  Anyone else?  I mean, you don’t have to understand it, I’m just saying “Whoever heard of this line in Shelley before?”

Student:  Well, it’s interesting that it’s stains” the white radiance.
AG:  Yeah.
Student:  Yeah.  I mean it’s like a blight or something…
AG:  Well, glass.  Like stained glass.
Student:  Glass.
AG:  So it’s not pejorative in that sense.
Student:  Oh, I see.
AG:  It’s not like a stain on the bedsheet.

Peter Orlovsky: Read it once again.

AG:  “The One remains,” – (Capital) – “The One remains, the many change and pass;/Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;/ Life, like a dome of many-colored glass,/Stains the white radiance of Eternity” – (Comma.) – “Until Death tramples it to fragments -Die,/If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!/Follow where all is fled! – Rome’s azure sky,/Flowers, ruins, statues, music, words, are weak/The glory they transfuse with fitting truth to speak..” – (So he’s saying that all of human intelligence, or art, flowers, and being, transfuses a truth, transfuses a glory.  It’s a glory which he names as “One” and also relates to as “Heaven’s Light” – in that stanza)

And at the end, “The breath whose might I have invoked in song.”  Well, I’ll read you the rest..

These are the last four stanzas ofAdonais” which is a long poem on the death of (John) Keats.  Did Tom Schwartz go over “Adonais” at all?

Student:  No.

AG:  “Why linger, why turn back, why shrink, my Heart?/Thy hopes are gone before: from all things here/They have departed; thou shouldst now depart!/A light is past from the revolving year..” – (With the death of his friend Keatsfor whom this is an elegy) – “And man, and woman..” – “A light is past from the revolving year,/And man, and woman; and what still is dear/Attracts to crush, repels to make thee wither./The soft sky smiles,/”Thee” being my hopes, my heart./The soft sky smiles, – the low wind whispers near:/’Tis Adonais..” – (sort of the ideal poet) – “…calls! oh, hasten thither,/Nor more let life divide what Death can join together./That Light whose smile kindles the Universe,/That Beauty in which all things work and move,/That Benediction which the eclipsing Curse/Of birth can quench not, that sustaining Love/Which through the web of being blindly wove/By man and beast and earth and air and sea,/Burns bright or dim, as each are mirrors of/The fire for which all thirst; now beams on me,/ Consuming the last clouds of cold mortality./ The breath whose might I have invoked in song/Descends on me; my spirit’s bark is driven,/Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng/Whose sails were never to the tempest given; / The massy earth and sphered skies are riven!/I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar;/Whilst burning through the inmost veil of Heaven,/The soul of Adonais, like a star,/Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.”

So according to Shelley in 1821, there was an eternal, it could be symbolized by a star and it’s a soul, belonged to Adonais, and you split heaven and earth – you split open existence and go into death and there is that star – soul – which is a fire for which all thirst, which is a light which kindles the universe, a beauty in which all things work and move, a benediction, a One, a heaven’s light, a white radiance, and a glory.  So that doesn’t sound much like mutability, actually.  That’s why I thought in that first line – “We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon” – it’s the same sort of thing – there’s something behind the clouds that’s always there, shining through them.  So he isn’t completely mutable because he’s got an eternal thing.  How old was he?  He was in his twenties.

If you’ve never read “Adonais,” for this class the homework would be to get yourself a book of romantic poetry and read through “Adonais”
and “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”
and “Ode to the West Wind,” because they’re really great texts.  And one thing I did want to talk about.  I guess since we’re where we are in terms of books and everything, is to start with Shelley, and then I want to go back to Blake.  Just check out Shelley.  The poems you should check are “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” “Ozymandias”  also, “Stanzas Written in Dejection Near Naples,” “England in 1819,“”Ode to the West Wind,” “Songs from ‘Prometheus Unbound,’“The Cloud,” ” (To A) Skylark,“and “Adonais.”  And then the final chorus from “Hellas,” and what’s his last long poem?, “The Triumph of Life”, particularly.

In other words, just read Shelley’s major work.  I mentioned a couple of them.  I mean, I mentioned a dozen poems which are really beautiful, which are a gas, and they’re the height of Romantic poetry and the height of ecstatic optimistic-pessimistic-Romantic exaltation in poetry, and they have the biggest breath of any English poetry.  And you might read the longer ones, the end of “Adonais,” “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” and the “Ode to the West Wind” – try reading them to yourself aloud because they’re good for sound.  And when you’re reading them, follow the commas for breaths, follow the periods for breaths, so that you use it as a musical score to know where to breath in and where to sound.  So it’s inspiration, exhalation, (it’s) literal breathing.  Read it for the breathing itself in it and see if it gets you high.  Because that kind of breathing is special.

to be continued

Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately twenty minute in and continuing till approximately thirty-two-and-half minutes in

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