A critical reading of Percy Shelley’s poem
Percy Shelley (1792-1822) was, along with Lord Byron and John Keats, one of the second-generation Romantic poets who followed Wordsworth and Coleridge – and, to an extent, diverged from them, having slightly different ideas of Romanticism. ‘The Flower That Smiles Today’, sometimes titled ‘Mutability’ (though Shelley, confusingly, wrote another poem called ‘Mutability’) is one of Shelley’s most widely anthologised poems, so we thought we’d share it here, along with a brief analysis of its language and meaning.
The flower that smiles to-day
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.
‘The Flower That Smiles Today’, in summary, is a poem about the brevity of all things – all hopes, desires, and delights the world has to offer are short-lived and doomed to die. Everything is fleeting and transitory. This argument had been made before Shelley made it: consider Robert Herrick’s famous seventeenth-century poem ‘To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time’. Indeed, Shelley’s opening lines seem to be a conscious reworking of Herrick’s: where Shelley writes ‘The flower that smiles today / Tomorrow dies’, Herrick had written that ‘this same flower that smiles today / Tomorrow will be dying.’
In the second stanza, Shelley laments that virtue or decency, friendship, and love are all rare and delicate: even once you have gained them you cannot guarantee they will last. (Shelley himself held to a philosophical view of love whereby, if you didn’t feel an intensely passionate love for someone any longer, you should leave them and be with the person you’re meant to be with; this goes a long way towards explaining his messy home life.) Yet Shelley affirms that we survive the deaths of these things: friendship, love, virtue. We have to go soldiering on, but at least we’re still alive.
In the third stanza, Shelley argues that, while we have this dreamy world of joy and delight, we should seek to enjoy it, before we ‘wake to weep’ when it’s all over. The dream analogy is a nice touch: we usually aren’t aware that we are in a dream, and are passively carried along by it. It’s only when we wake that we realise we’ve been had. Shelley’s message appears to be that we cannot control these things – they are greater than us – so all we can do is to enjoy them while they last.
The first stanza of Shelley’s poem in particular repays close analysis. There are long ‘i’ sounds at the ends of five of the seven lines, but also internally too (‘smiles’, ‘Lightning’), with the ‘light’ peeping out from ‘delight’ playing off the miserable darkness of ‘night’, and that flash of light glimpsed between them, in the word ‘Lightning’, being almost electrifying in its force at the start of the line. The world’s pleasures are as brief as a flash of lightning, but how exhilarating to experience!
‘The Flower That Smiles Today’ (or ‘Mutability’, as some anthologies have it) depicts Shelley’s ideas about worldly pleasures in an effective and memorable way. It might be productive to analyse this poem alongside something like Herrick’s, which was written in a very different, though equally turbulent, period of English history. One wonders how much that turbulence fed into the poems’ message, to enjoy fleeting joys before they’ve flown.
Discover more Romantic poetry with our discussion of Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’, our thoughts on Shelley’s ‘Stanzas Written in Dejection, Near Naples’, and our summary of Keats’s ‘Bright star’ sonnet.
Image: Portrait of Percy Shelley, 1822, via Wikimedia Commons.
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‘And ere a man hath power to say behold,
The jaws of darkness do devour it up.’