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, an 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 lines aforesaid are those of the poem, ‘Mutability II’ also known as, ‘The Flower That Smiles Today’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley.
My take on the poem, in the forthcoming lines, cannot be deemed as insightful as the approach of someone who has studied it deeply, for I just happened to come across it in a book and am writing what I think about it.
It is not difficult to infer from this poem that the poet while writing it, was unhappy. We often begin to contemplate life in times of distress. We think about happiness, its transience. The inevitability of sadness after happiness comes to mind. One day we are smiling, the next we are not. Through the example of the flower we see that happiness is fleeting, perhaps even beauty.
‘All that we wish to stay, Tempts and then flies.’ Everything we have ever had, all emotions, they enter the hedges of our life, our mind, but stay there for only what later seems like a brief moment. All the people and things we hold dear are evanescent. Content is short-lived. The ephemeralness of happiness leads the poet to question what exactly it is that we are living for.
Clinging on to the atmosphere of sadness, the second stanza seems to be an overflow of emotion. It talks of how weak and fragile virtue is, and the uncommonness of friendship, and how these things render our lives useless and unwanted. How even the bliss of love diminishes to misery. The most wonderful of feelings is momentary.
Shelley sees the glass not as half full, but as half empty. The third stanza appears to be exaggerated melancholy but is actually just an undeclared truth. We think happiness is something at our disposal – it is not. Happiness and colour in our lives maintain their presence for just about as long as the night does, it eventually and inevitably ends. When we avert our eyes from happiness and joy, transient, like a dream, we are left with sadness, a feeling as forlorn as us. Life is not a dream.