Chapter 6: Ways of Escape: Blake's "Mental Traveller"

 

    William Blake's "The Mental Traveller" serves as a good

introduction to the coincidence of opposites in Blake because it

shows the absolute failure of opposites to interpenetrate.  The

opposing male and female in the poem frustrate, dominate, and

torture each other at every opportunity.  Moving contrapuntally

with the negations between fixed male and female principles, in a

more mobile opposition, youth and old age mutually torture and

attempt to destroy each other.  The images of circles and of

opposing centrifugal and centripetal forces that were crucial to

Cusa, Pope, Coleridge, Percy Shelley, and Mary Shelley, here take

over completely.  Circles generated by the insistent opposition

between male and female threaten to end existence by their

claustrophobic escalations of tension.  Before Blake finds

solutions to the problems of opposites in his later poems, he

first paints them, in all their detail and agony, in "The Mental

Traveller."

    The oppositions in "The Mental Traveller" create a poem that

well serves as a cautionary tale in one's methods of

interpretation.  At one extreme, some interpretations emphasize

the horror of the cycle of male-female domination; at the other

extreme, some interpretations emphasize the eternal aspects of

the cycle of spirit and nature.  I prefer the point of view of

Michael Cooke, who emphasizes the poem's curious doubleness:

 

    An atmosphere of outrage at the entire scene pervades the

    poem, but there is also an uncontrollable fascination that

    the speaker freely imparts.1

   

All major forms of interpretation emphasize or imply the

inevitability of the cycle, while only a few critics suggest any

hope of escape.  I maintain that the poem opens possibilities of

escape in almost every moment.  An even more optimistic view of

the poem comes from Rachel Billigheimer:

      

    Blake employs imagination in order to escape the wheel of

    time. . . . In the historical-mythic account of "The Mental

    Traveller" Blake symbolically describes how freedom is born

    from suffering that is turned into triumph.2

   

I think that Billigheimer goes too far in reading this poem as


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exhibiting the triumph of the imagination.  But I do agree that

the excruciating cycles of this poem point toward the freedom of

the imagination that blossoms in later poems.

    Quite clearly the characters in the poem, or perhaps more

exactly the principles of action in the poem, see opposites only

as mutually exclusive. All attempts at interpenetration of male

and female result in exclusion, torture, or destruction.  Not

accepting any co-existence of opposites, not accepting any

mutually productive dynamic, not accepting any acts of inclusion,

the male and female can try only to exclude or destroy or

overpower or dominate.  Imagination at any point might find

freedom from the cyclical trap; instead the trap grows deeper and

more horrible.  When the poem ends--"And all is done as I have

told"--the anticipated cycle promises to be even more brutal than

the one in which we have just been spun.

    Throughout the cycle, however, opportunities for escape

abound.  Most commentators recognize the promise of liberation in

the birth at the beginning of the poem.  It seems that the

torture of the babe by the old woman might be avoidable.  Even

though reading the beginning of the poem in light of the end with

its promise of repetition tends to dampen such a hope, the entire

poem presents itself in a series of glimpsed, missed

opportunities.  At every moment the perspective of the

imagination is possible, as it is in Blake's Milton:

 

    There is a Moment in each Day that Satan cannot find

    Nor can his Watch Fiends find it, but the Industrious find

    This Moment & it multiply. & when it once is found

    It renovates every Moment of the Day if rightly placed.

                            (35:42-45, E136)

 

Putting this possibility in the context of Blake's entire oeuvre,

without specific reference to "The Mental Traveller," Thomas

Altizer suggests a most radical hope based on acceptance of

despair:

   

    The movement from Fall to Apocalypse is a dialectical

    movement through an 'Eternal Circle' demanding a full

    participation in every turn of the wheel.  . . .  Apart from

    the joy and horror of our fallen history, there could be

    neither a real nor a dialectical movement culminating in the

    Apocalypse.  Therefore, every moment not only opens into

    Eden, but also the actual reality of Eden is inseparable from

    a fallen time and space. 3

 

Whether or not we accept such an extreme insight, clearly Blake

calls us in this poem to some such breaking of the normal limits

of perception.  Altizer's emphasis on the inseparability of

fallen vision and Edenic vision, with its acceptance of the

horrors of the cycle, can help us to reassess our disapproval of

torture in the poem.  Nevertheless, we must guard against a

complacency that can be caused by Altizer's death-of-God

theology.  Simple acceptance of the horrors is not enough; it

must be combined with an equal and opposite desire for escape. 

Blakean vision simultaneously accepts and rejects the everyday

world of fallen vision.

    From the very beginning of Blake's illuminated works, his

tractates, he distinguishes between poetic and empirical modes of

vision.  Probably the most useful general way to interpret "The

Mental Traveller" is to apply Blake's conclusion to the tractate

"There is No Natural Religion":

 

    If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic character the

    Philosophic & Experimental would be seen at the ratio of all

    things, & stand still unable to do other than repeat the same

    dull round over again.  (E1)

 


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Ordinary vision, single vision, everyday common sense, called

"Philosophic & Experimental" by Blake, can live only a numbing

cycle.  That cycle is perfectly represented in "The Mental

Traveller," in which the characters and many interpreters can see

no way to escape.  The poet/prophet Blake, through his narrator

who has travelled through these cycles, gives us the most

horrifying picture of the philosophic/experimental limitations on

existence.  Mere empiricism, coupled with rationalism, contains

no spark with which to light the psychological and spiritual

darkness that envelopes the cycles of "The Mental Traveller."

    Like Blake's character Urizen when at his worst, the

characters in "The Mental Traveller" fear any change brought on

by new life:

 

    Urizen can understand recurrence well enough, but the

    presence within time and space of life, of a power which

    grows and alters its form, inspires in him a feeling of

    insecurity.4

 

Caught in unquestioned ideologies, caught in the traps of

accepting the natural world as a standard, such limited vision

can only accept the revenge that makes the world go round.  But

each action, each state or condition in the poem, presents a

typical Blakean hope concealed within the apparent hopelessness. 

Each crux in the poem can be interpreted as a hopeful possible

way of escape.  True, each time they have the opportunity, the

characters choose not to see Eternity, because each time the male

or the female attains a potential for escape, the other negates

it.  However, this cycle of despair, of failed hopes, contains

the germ of regeneration.  This poem does not show such

regeneration, as do Four Zoas, Milton, and Jerusalem, but it does

show the problem in stark opposites that never find coincidence. 

It does define opposites that need interpenetration, but that

always seek it only perversely.

    Blake's concept of States and Individuals also gives us a

useful general framework in which to place "The Mental

Traveller":

 

    Distinguish therefore States from Individuals in those

      States.

    States Change: but Individual Identities never change nor

      cease.

                            (Milton 32:22-23, E132)

 

    The Spiritual States of the Soul are all Eternal

    Distinguish between the man, & his present State. 

                                (Jerusalem 52, E198)

 

    So Men pass on: but States remain permanent for ever.

                               (J 73:45, E229)

 

Although the second and third passages may seem to contradict the

first because the former emphasize the changing nature of states,

and the latter emphasizes their permanence, both passages do

emphasize the dynamic nature of human identity.  "Every harlot

was a virgin once."  The problem in "The Mental Traveller" can be

defined as an insistence by the characters that everyone stay in

the same condition.  The actions of the characters try to fix the

other or the self in a permanent condition.  Ironically, as the

cycle proceeds, such fixity is impossible anyway; the obvious

lesson is never learned.

    As the poem proceeds, the characters undergo dynamic changes

of condition, but they always try to hold on to the state in

which they find themselves, to forestall any further changes. 

The turning cycle drives them outward with centrifugal force,

forcing change upon them; their selfishness of limited vision

counters with centripetal force, desperately and uselessly

grasping and clinging.  At almost every turn they grasp, bind,

and otherwise try to fix the state of the other individual and

therefore of themselves.  This grasping ironically produces an

effect not wished for: instead of freezing the cycle, such

grasping spins it faster.

    The poem begins by re-casting the traditional word of human

universality--"Men"--into a word of sexual division--"Men &


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Women."  These bland, acceptable terms, beginning in line one

with hegemonical unity, bifurcating in line two into a cheery

"vive la difference," suddenly turn threatening and hostile as

the narrator intrudes "dreadful" and "cold" into our world of

traditional male dominance and sexual flirtation:

 

     I traveld thro' a Land of Men        

     A Land of Men & Women too   

     And heard & saw such dreadful things

     As cold Earth wanderers never knew.

        

    After a first line which sounds like a routine travel memoir-

-"I traveld thro' a Land of Men"--the second line repeats half of

the first line and adds an important split: "A Land of Men &

Women too."  In ordinary usage the first line about men would

include women.  By emphasizing the two sexes Blake underlines a

drastic difference, an irreconcilable opposition that prepares us

for the horrors of sexual separation that the rest of the poem

catalogues.  He may also be including a little joke like the one

that Hamlet tells at the end of his "What a piece of work is

man!" speech:

 

    man delights not me; no, nor woman neither, though by your

    smiling you seem to say so.5

 

The traditional obliteration of woman in the universal term "man"

not only denigrates women by excluding them, but it also

highlights the licentious flirtation that Hamlet and Blake imply,

the flirtation of the battle between the sexes that spirals into

sadism in "The Mental Traveller."  Women are the playthings of

men in Hamlet's joke, the easy answer to a difficult question: if

life is getting you down, go get yourself a woman.  Women are the

playthings of men in Blake's poem as well, but in this vicious

equal-opportunity cycle, men are also the playthings of women. 

Without the difference in the sexes, the world could not go

round; without the mutual exploitation, the cycles of "The Mental

Traveller" could not continue in the same mutually destructive

fashion.  Although Blake does underline the categories of male

and female in a peculiarly twentieth-century way, his point is

not equality of the sexes, but rather the mutual torture that the

two sexes inflict on each other if they continue the same old

dull round instead of using the imagination to escape or to re-

imagine existence. 

    Throughout the poem the narrator's voice is flat, simply

narrative, almost deadpan.  The only word that the narrator uses

to express his own feelings occurs in the third line: "dreadful."  

Izak Bouwer and Paul McNally interpret this value judgment in a

positive way:

 

    "Men & Women" . . . refers to eternal archetypes, and it

    follows that the poet visited the regions of Man's eternal

    reality. . . .  The "dreadful" things recounted by the

    traveler are the events of this land of eternal reality,

    which are awe-ful, or sublime.6

 

Although this open-minded generosity, in the spirit of Cooke's

"fascination" quoted above, may help us to read the poem, such an

assertion seems to deny the horror and even the detachment of the

narrator.  Indeed, most interpreters of the poem see the word

"dreadful" as separating the narrator from the events that he

describes.  However, if, as Gerald Enscoe suggests, the narrator

is someone who has already undergone the kinds of experiences

that he is about to describe (403), then the narrator might be

showing sympathy, not distance.  Perhaps, with a vigorous

stretching of the imagination, a reader can see the word

"dreadful" as all three: positive, pejorative, and sympathetic. 

The poem thus would set up a complex of attitudes that is not

simply either accepting or rejecting, but both.


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    The "cold Earth wanderers" of line 4 are those of us who fail

to view the world with prophetic vision and can not see the

horror of what men and women do to each other, and therefore live

trapped in these horrors, frozen in our psychological state.  

"All are bound to the insistent simplicity of a role. . . . roles

exhaust the possibilities of relationship in 'The Mental

Traveller.'"7  The ignorance of which line 4 speaks may not mean

that we have not experienced these tortures but that we do not

really understand them.  Surely every human being who has ever

tried to love has lived some of the horrors of this poem and thus

"knows" them; just as surely, few of us understand our actions

and feelings, and thus we "know" not what we do.  By describing

the cruel vagaries of love so starkly Blake urges us, as does a

satirist, to front the process and thereby find a new way to view

the events, perhaps to escape from the horrible cycle by leaving

it as does the female babe in the middle of the poem or by

transforming the cycle as Blake does in later poems.  

    Just as the first stanza upsets ordinary categories of men

and women, so the second stanza upsets, and even reverses,

ordinary categories of sex and birth:

 

    For there the Babe is born in joy  

    That was begotten in dire woe      

    Just as we Reap in joy the fruit    

    Which we in bitter tears did sow.   

 

Thus, the first incident in the poem is a birth, which in Blake

is usually a hopeful sign.  According to Martin Nurmi and many

other critics, the dreadful cycle that we are about to enter

could be broken here, but it is not; the opportunity is missed.8

    The strange thing about this birth is that it reverses the

curse in which birth happens in pain.  In the Bible Eve is cursed

by God for her transgression of eating the fruit of the forbidden

tree:

 

    I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in

    sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.  (Gen 3:16)

 

Blake's simple reversal invites us to redefine our unthinking

acceptance of the agony of labor, just as the entire poem invites

us to reconsider our unthinking acceptance of the battle between

the sexes. 

    In addition to reversing the feeling usually assigned to

birth, the poem also reverses the traditional feeling attached to

sex, for the babe has been begotten in dire woe.  Instead of the

expected pleasure in sex and pain in childbirth, the poem gives

us pain in sex and pleasure in childbirth.  The curses of the Old

Testament Urizenic God are thus reversed at the beginning of the

poem, but almost every action throughout the poem tries to

reinstate them.  By reversing traditionally assigned values and

feelings, Blake invites us into a potentially transformed world. 

Each new beginning in the poem promises to reverse an old curse,

promises to begin to escape, but then succumbs to the same old

dull round.

    In this description of the birth of the babe, Blake alludes

to a Bible passage in which the Psalmist commemorates the escape

from Babylonian captivity:

 


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    When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion, we were

    like them that dream.  Then was our mouth filled with

    laughter, and our tongue with singing: then said they among

    the heathen, the Lord hath done great things for them.  The

    Lord hath done great things for us; whereof we are glad. 

    Turn again our captivity, O Lord, as the streams in the

    south.  They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.  He that

    goeth forth . . . bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come

    again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.  (Psalms

    126:1-6)  [emphasis added]

 

This allusion implies that a chance for escape from any dreadful

condition is possible.  Such hints recur throughout the poem, but

each such hope gets trampled. 

    Gerald Enscoe suggests that Blake means that sex has been

perverted by Puritanical inhibitions into a dire woe, and that

the joy of birth is really the female's relief at ridding herself

of her inner burden, which she can now repay for the grief it has

caused her.9  She has been imposed on; now she can impose in

turn.  Such a reading perfectly catches the cycle of revenge that

is set in motion, but it does so at the cost of any genuine joy. 

Any joy would have to be redefined as sadism.  Martin Nurmi, on

the other extreme, wants joy to overcome sorrow.  He tries to

allow both extremes, but can not:

 

    the emphasis [can be] either on dire woe or on joy.  I

    believe joy to be proper: although the babe is begotten in

    sorrow, he is born in joy.10

 

I think a combination of these two readings, with nether denying

the other, best opens up the Blakean dilemma, unsolved in this

poem but solved later in the coincidences of opposites in

Jerusalem.  In "The Mental Traveller," sorrow and joy, stasis and

movement, female and male, see-saw back and forth in manic-

depressive, sado-masochistic ricochet.  Each extreme, by trying

to deny the other, by trying to find solidity, as Urizen usually

tries to do in The Book of Urizen and the Four Zoas, actually

forces the cycle to spin faster and more cruelly.  The joy and

the sorrow are both genuine, but the attempt to destroy either

one traps us more inextricably in the dreadful cycles.

    As soon as the babe is born, the old woman tries to pin him

like a butterfly specimen:

 

    And if the Babe is born a Boy       

    He's given to a Woman Old           

    Who nails him down upon a rock      

    Catches his shrieks in cups of gold.

 

    When the boy babe is given to the old woman, the first

explicit torture of the poem begins.  The act can be seen as

social; society as a whole allows the torture to happen by giving

the child over to the torturer.  The passive verb implies a

hidden ideology, an action that has no clearly defined actor to

be blamed.  Haven't we always done it this way?  And if we have,

how can anyone imagine new possibilities?

    The first woman in the poem takes the babe and nails him down

upon a rock, thereby trying to force him into rigid, fixed

patterns, to solidify him in his state.  The imagery recalls

Christ, punished by man, and Prometheus, punished by Zeus.  This

evocation of Prometheus provides interesting echoes into

Prometheus Unbound and Frankenstein, which has as its subtitle

"The Modern Prometheus," and Prometheus Unbound.  They both set

up a cycle of punishment and revenge which seems inescapable.  In

Frankenstein the cycle is not escaped, but in Prometheus Unbound,

the power of forgiveness, also the power of liberation in Blake's

Jerusalem, does break the cycle of revenge.

    As in Blake's Orc cycle11 over and over again, as soon as the


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spirit of revolution or new life springs up, the forces of

repression hasten to pin it down and rigidify it. 

 

    She binds iron thorns around his head

    She pierces both his hands & feet    

    She cuts his heart out at his side   

    To make it feel both cold & heat.

 

The iron thorns and the binding of the hands and feet, both

reminiscent of the torture of Jesus, represent mental limitations

and limitations of physical activity.  This kind of imagery,

emblematic of the disastrous mutual torture of Ulro, is prevalent

in Blake's prophecies.  One example, with imagery similar to this

image in "The Mental Traveller," emphasizes the feeling of

invasion:

 

    . . .  they cut asunder his inner garments: searching with

    Their cruel fingers for his heart, & there they enter in pomp

                                (Jerusalem 66:27-28)

 

Sacrifices abound in Blake's prophecies as examples of the depths

of human behavior.  Northrop Frye persuasively links sacrifice to

the dominance of reason:

 

    Human sacrifice in all its forms . . . is the most eloquently

    symbolic act which the dreaming Selfhood is capable of

    performing.  It illustrates every aspect of the Fall, and

    parodies every aspect of eternal life. . . . The motive for

    human sacrifice is . . . an effort to express the ascendance

    of nature and reason in society.12

 

In Frye's explanation Nature and reason band together to torture

humanity. Nature, the ideology of keeping what is, provides the

excuse for falling into patterns of unimaginative repetition. 

Reason, the insistence on respectable order, provides the

justification for trying to remove recalcitrant or rebellious

elements from society.  Together Nature and Reason fight to keep

out new vision, to restrict the possibilities of life, and to

disqualify the coincidence of opposites that is necessary before

we can see a way out of the cycle of torture.

    As the torture between female and male continues, a cycle of

youth and old age sets in.  Leaving behind any pretense of

realistic travel literature, the poem shows the female moving

backward in time:

 

    Her fingers number every Nerve     

    Just as a Miser counts his gold    

    She lives upon his shrieks & cries 

    And she grows young as he grows old.

 

In this cannibalistic image, the female grasps, manipulates, and

hoards.  By living upon the male's shrieks and cries, she implies

that she can live only at the expense of his pain.  Thus, as in

the whole poem, a zero-sum game is played: one contestant can

gain only by making the opponent lose.  To make herself more and

to make the male less, the old woman uses the youthful energy of

his protests to nourish herself.  In this way new life serves to

replenish and nourish old age, but instead of living with the new

life in a reciprocal relationship, the old life attempts to

control the young life and feed off it vampirishly.  Such feeding

enables old age to feel that it is not growing older.  Old age

can not stand to grow older, because it wants to remain in a

fixed state in order to fend off death.  In a perversion of the

Eucharist, the old woman binds the youth and miraculously sucks


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his blood out.  She will not allow him to be an integral being to

experience but cuts out his heart and expose it to try to make

him feel the way she wants him to feel.  She forces him to wear

his heart on his sleeve, to be sentimental.  She wants to destroy

him instead of allowing him to grow. 

    She invades his body even further when she counts every nerve

as a miser counts his gold.  This image of scientific analysis

and hoarding greed reinforces the feeling of control, of misuse. 

The miser gorges himself on money as the past feeds itself on the

present, as the harvester can gorge himself, muttering "I deserve

it."  This image will crystalize into riches as food later in the

poem.  The past tries to assure its "futurity" by repressing the

present.  This perversion can feel certain only if others are

tied down and destroyed, or best of all, ingested, assimilated,

and negated.

    A similar kind of language appears at the beginning of The

Four Zoas when Tharmas and Enion split apart.  Tharmas, who hates

and dreads clear articulation, complains:       

 

     Why wilt thou Examine every little fibre of my soul

     Spreading them out before the Sun like Stalks of flax to dry

     The infant joy is beautiful but its anatomy

     Horrible Ghast & Deadly nought shalt thou find in it

     But Death Despair & Everlasting brooding Melancholy.

                                (Four Zoas 4:28-33, E298)

 

The analysis that Enion and the old/young woman perform on the

males takes vivid physical form, but it arises from rationalistic

analysis, the kind that wants to take everything apart and see

what makes it tick.  "Our meddling intellect" does "murder to

dissect."

    When Urizen abjures his error near the end of The Four Zoas,

he relinquishes his desire for a fixed futurity:

 

    O that I had never drank the wine nor eat the bread

    Of dark mortality nor cast my view into futurity nor turnd

    My back darkning the present clouding with a cloud

    . . .

    Seeking the Eternal which is always present to the wise

    Then Go O dark futurity I will cast thee forth from these

    Heavens of my brain nor will I look upon futurity more

    I cast futurity away & turn my back upon that void

    Which I have made for lo futurity is in this moment

                                                (E390)

 

Urizen's repentence is one of the solutions to the problem set up

in "The Mental Traveller."  That solution never is stated in this

poem, but it is always potential.

    As the cycle goes on, the female grows younger and the male

grows older until they reach the same age:

 

    Till he becomes a bleeding youth    

    And she becomes a Virgin bright     

    Then he rends up his Manacles       

    And binds her down for his delight  

 

The opportunity for mutuality appears as they reach same age, but

the moment of possible renewal passes as fast as it arrives, and

the male reciprocates the tortures.  As with the births of the

babes at the start and end of the poem, the moment of potential

freedom becomes instead an opportunity for further exploitation. 

Like the cycle of revenge that ruins the newness of birth, the

perverted reciprocity of revenge holds on to the previous

condition and allows it to infect the present state.  At the

birth of the babe, the female ruined the potential for escape by


9

binding him; now at the conjunction of ages, the male ruins the

potential for escape by binding her.  Any attempt to hold on to

the past is an attempt to freeze time, to allow no further

dissolution of an egotistical self that hates change.  And

holding on to vengeance from the past turns the screw even

further.

    In Enscoe's Freudian reading of the male and female as son

and mother, 13 the mother seems to grow younger as the boy grows

older and she seems to become just another woman.  In Enscoe's

reading, just as the woman finds joy in punishing that which gave

her sorrow, the male breaks his chains and ties her down for his

delight.  Each revenges previous pain.  The cycle of revenge goes

on.  The potential for breaking out of the cycle is destroyed by

the binding which gives the male only a kind of perverted

pleasure, based, in Frye's terms, on jealousy:

   

    The abstract reasoner cannot see a tree without dragging its

    shadow off to the cave of his own mind. . . . The Selfhood

    cannot love in the sense of establishing a kinship with the

    beloved: it can regard the latter only as a possession,

    something to contemplate in solitude.14

   

    When the male invades the female's nerves as she had invaded

his, the torture becomes even worse.  The cycle does not just

repeat itself; it spirals into more intense torture.  Whereas she

counted and anatomized, he goes further by planting himself,

becoming a part of her, invading her more deeply than she did

him:

 

    He plants himself in all her Nerves

    Just as a Husbandman his mould     

    And she becomes his dwelling place 

    And Garden fruitful seventy fold   

 

    Now instead of metaphors of divine and human sacrifice, the

metaphor becomes one of gardening.  The female becomes mold or

fertile earth, to be planted in by the seed of the male. 

Although plant and garden imagery is often pejorative in Blake,

in some cases it does herald a possibility of escape from

disaster:

 

                 in Beulah the Feminine

    Emanations Create Space. the Masculine Create Time, & plant

    The Seeds of beauty in the Space

                  (Jerusalem 85:7-9)

 

Near the end of Jerusalem, in the most important Blakean example

of the redemptive value of gardening, Los realizes that he must

act not only as a hammering, active blacksmith, but also as a

waiting, passive farmer:

 

    The land is markd for desolation & unless we plant

    The seeds of Cities & of Villages in the Human bosom

    Albion must be a rock of blood.  (83:54-56)

 

    Again, however, the cycles of "The Mental Traveller" blast

the potential for fulfillment.  Although the garden image

contains hope, the male character instead exploits its vengeful

portion: by domesticating the female, he makes her into the

ultimate housewife--a wife who is also a house: "And she becomes

his dwelling place."  Some interpreters, such as Nurmi and

Bouwer, see this stanza as positive:

 

    The Spiritual principle [male], now dominant, is able to

    control the natural world [female] with increasing ease and

    joy, where before . . . it could express itself in nature

    only through suffering.15

 


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Yet Enscoe pinpoints both the extremity of the male's invasion

and its potential for reversal.  He calls the action,

 

    procreation by domination.  It is 'himself' he is planting,

    and ironically the self he plants will become the female Babe

    who will drive him away into the desert later in the poem.16

 

Thus Enscoe's reading incorporates the favorable interpretation

by Bouwer, but judges the male's planting as cruel, even while

pointing out its unexpected, freeing result.  At this point, a

reader sees the diminishment of the female, but can hardly

imagine her imminent liberation.

    Soon the female, who has been so degraded, seems to disappear

from the poem as the old man wanders around the house all alone:

 

    An aged Shadow soon he fades    

    Wandring round an Earthly Cot   

    Full filled all with gems & gold

    Which he by industry had got    

 

In their insistence on maintaining a positive view of the male,

who in their reading consistently represents the human spirit as

against the female world of nature, Bouwer and McNally interpret

this stanza as a positive view of the male.  Thus, by trying to

maintain a consistent, fixed view, they fall into laborious

distortions:

 

    We suggest that "aged" merely indicates that the Spritual

    principle is nearing full manifestation and greatest

    potency.17

 

    The male has achieved a very perverse potency indeed: not

only has the woman been reduced to garden and house, but she has

been reduced to smaller, precious commodities--jewels.  When a

woman is referred to as a jewel, she is being equated with the

object of greed, miserliness, and possession.  She is small,

beautiful, helpless, in fact almost non-existent, except as an

embodiment of the ultimate object of man's desire.

    The gems become emblems simultaneously of courtly love and

religious suffering:

 

    And these are the gems of the Human Soul 

    The rubies & pearls of a lovesick eye    

    The countless gold of the akeing heart   

    The martyrs groan & the lovers sigh.

 

In this stanza Blake rings changes on his own short poem,

"Riches":

 

    The countless gold of a merry heart

    The rubies & pearls of a loving eye

    The indolent never can bring to the mart

    Nor the secret hoard up in his treasury.

                   (E461)

 

These gems of love and joy in this other poem, like the joy in

the epigraph to this chapter, can not be trapped and hoarded. 

But the twists of pain and jealousy can become the miser's

object.  Blake delineates the psychology of this dynamic in one

of the most bitter passages in Jerusalem:

 

    All Quarrels arise from Reasoning. the secret Murder, and

    The violent Man-slaughter. these are the Spectres double Cave

    The Sexual Death living on accusation of Sin & Judgment

    To freeze Love & Innocence into the gold & silver of the

      Merchant


11

    Without Forgiveness of Sin Love is Itself Eternal Death.

                                   (64: 20-24)

 

    The gems thus, like most of the images in the poem, contain a

dual potential: they can be pain or they can be joy.  If joy,

they are free and creative.  If pain, they are trapped and

unimaginative, but still bursting with potential.  Like every

other potential in the poem, though, they are twisted into

exploitation.  As the ultimate exploited object, they become

food:

 

    They are his meat they are his drink  

    He feeds the Beggar & the Poor        

    And the wayfaring Traveller           

    For ever open is his door.

 

Consistently, Bouwer and McNally interpret this image as

favorable:

 

    Stanzas 10 and 11 . . . describe the state of Eden. . . . the eternal

    forms appear fully assembled as the 'Family Divine.'  This family is the

    'Council of God.'18

 

Although exaggerated, this interpretation does underline the

potential of regeneration.  Greediness has become charity, at

least, although Blake's comments on charity in other contexts

make the value ambiguous at best.  When the woman was old and the

man was young, she fed off him.  Now the positions are reversed

as the cycle has turned almost 180 degrees.  Just as they torture

and submit to each other in perversions of genuine love, so the

aged man takes the profits that he has made by exploiting the

woman, does not even leave them in their organic form, but

hardens them, makes them metallic, and uses them to exploit

others in the name of charity.  "Pity would be no more if we did

not make somebody poor."  And indeed the old man has already done

his part to make another poor by exploiting the woman earlier. 

His grief, like the devouring joy in stanza 1, makes others

happy:

 

    His grief is their eternal joy      

    They make the roofs & walls to ring 

    Till from the fire on the hearth    

    A little Female Babe does spring    

 

    And she is all of solid fire          

    And gems & gold that none his hand   

    Dares stretch to touch her Baby form 

    Or wrap her in his swaddling-band.

 

    Now the female reappears.  Having been reduced into complete

domesticity, into becoming a very house, she now is reborn from

the hearth, the ultimate reduction of the household.  The female,

who had seemingly been eliminated, thus reveals herself as a

principle that can not be destroyed.  She cannot be repressed. 

She must return.  The apparent reduction, even destruction of the

famale has not taken place at all.  She has merely changed her

conditions, her states, and now comes back stronger than ever.

    According to Morton Paley, the female babe is the archetypal

evil female, who

 

    unites numerous evil females of Blake's pantheon. . . . She

    is the sum of what the male has created up to this point and

    so represents, not an imaginative achievement at all, as some

    have suggested but the entirely materialist values of the

    urizenic Host.19

    


12

According to Adams, at the other extreme, she is a force for

creativity.  He even goes so far as to assert that the man she

loves is the narrator with whom she leaves the poem.20

    Once again, a reader who can see both these extremes at the

same time comes closer than the reader who can see only one

extreme.  Of course Paley is correct that the female babe is a

result of the materialistic values of the host; after all, she

has been beaten down and domesticated by him.  On the other hand,

Adams is correct that she is a counter force to materialism, that

she is a creative force.  For Paley assumes that no creativity

can arise from its diametrical opposite, materialism.  But the

point of Blake's use of the patterns of coincidentia oppositorum

is that creativity can and does arise from materialism.  Paley's

vision would miss that miracle, and would probably not understand

the potential for renewal at this mid-way point in the poem. 

Such a miss would allow the horrible cycle to continue while the

female babe is about to escape from tyranny into freedom.

    Enscoe's interpretation accommodates the doubleness, but goes

to the extreme of missing the negative aspects of exploitation:

 

    This grief ["His grief is their eternal joy"] is positive. 

    If the Host felt no grief, if he were happy in his position

    as domineering tyrant, no hope of change would exist, no

    movement would take place from one 'state' to another, no

    "wanderers" would ever become "travellers."21

 

While Enscoe is correct in pointing out that the grief produces

changes in state that may lead to a more comprehensive vision,

and while his insight that some of the "cold Earth wanderers" of

line 4 may become mental travellers with the broad vision of the

narrator, he neglects to acknowledge the genuine pain of

materialism and exploitation.  The gems to which the female had

been reduced now reappear as the solid gems of the female babe,

active instead of passive, strong instead of weak, free instead

of imprisoned.  Thus the limit of reduction turns back against

its oppressor, but by refusing to repress him in turn, escapes

from the trap, in a way similar to the escape of Prometheus at

the start of Shelley's Prometheus Unbound.

    We are not told why she can not be touched but the strong

implication is that she is simply too fierce.  She resists the

ideology of naturalness that allows the boy babe in stanza 2

easily to be handed over to the old torturing woman.  I agree

with Enscoe's reading that the female babe is a hopeful sign,22

the most hopeful among many such moments in the poem, similar to

but even stronger than the birth of the young male at the

beginning of the poem, and his reappearance at the end of the

poem.  The young female is a sign that there is hope to break

from the cycle.  She is the only one who does not get caught in

the cycle.  And indeed she will be the only character who does

escape from the cycle to find a new life.  Every new birth gives

such a hope, whereas the mere cycle of young-old-young-old-young

promises nothing but the same old mistakes over and over again. 

Not only can no one touch her, but no one can wrap her in a

swaddling band.  This image not only reminds us that she cannot

be restricted, but also reminds us of the birth of Christ, the

sacrifice par excellence, who was invoked in stanzas 3 and 4. 

She is neither a passive sexual victim nor a sadistic sexual

aggressor, as is every other character in the poem.

 

    But She comes to the Man she loves

    If young or old or rich or poor   

    They soon drive out the aged Host 

    A Beggar at anothers door.

 

She uses the power of her will to make a conscious choice instead

of imposing herself or being imposed upon, as do the other


13

characters.  "The female babe has choices beyond the perceptual

scope of the poem."23  And she does not use the state of the man,

"young or old or rich or poor," to determine her choice.  Instead

of acting out of a reflex of revenge, she, as an individual,

chooses another individual rather than simply reacting to him

because of his state.  She freely comes to the man she loves

without regard to his condition becasue she will not exploit him,

and she will not be exploited by him.  Bloom reads her choice of

a lover as a rejection of age in favor of youth.24  But such an

interpretation flies in the face of the explict disclaimer, "if

young or old or rich or poor."  The categories that determine the

other actions in the poem do not determine hers, just as the

ideologies of "nature" and reason do not determine the decisions

of Blake.

    She is not choosing youth, but a different psychological

state, just as her original condition after birth was a state not

amenable to the tortures of the cycle.  What she chooses is so

different from the values of the rest of the poem that she must

disappear from the poem entirely.  What is important is that she

freely chooses her lover and makes a new life for herself outside

the cycle.  Many critics, including Bloom, see this as nature

turning against man, but in fact the man carries on the cycle

without her because she has left the cycle.  She did not turn

against him.  She refused the cycle of mutual torture.  We see

her no more because she now lives beyond this poem, in a

different state, a different dimension, which we will not see

directly until the conclusions of Blake's epics. 

    This frozen man's own frozen state drives him out.  He is

driven out because he deserves to be.  Since above I have used

one of Blake's definitions of the prophetic character as a

general guide to my interpretation of "The Mental Traveller," one

of his other definitions of the prophet will be helpful at this

point.  The prophet, according to Blake, is not one who can

simply predict the future.  The prophet, speaking his opinion

frankly, is one who sees deeply into the meanings and results of

people's actions:

 

    Every honest man is a Prophet he utters his opinion both of

    private & public matters/Thus/If you go on So/the result is

    So/He never says such a thing shall happen let you do what

    you will.25

 

The entire cycle of "The Mental Traveller" is caused by the ways

in which the male and female go on.  The old man has not been

harmed by the female babe.  Quite the contrary, he has created

the very situation in which he must be driven out into the

freezing cold.  Clinging, reducing, trying greedily to grasp his

present state, he has created his own metaphysics, as does the

angel in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, who sees the horrors of

spiders, Leviathan, and tygers, and is told, "All that we saw was

owing to your metaphysics" (E42).

    Having exploited the woman-garden, hoarded up his jewels like

a miser, and then pityingly fed off them and fed them to others,

the old man loses the love of the female babe, who will not be

bound.  He has reached the limit of contraction; he has pushed so

far that he gets pushed back.  The old man who pitied and fed the

beggars now becomes himself a beggar; he becomes what he beheld. 

Whereas earlier he wandered inside his own Cot, this time his

wandering takes him far away.  At least in his cottage surrounded

by his jewels, he could feel some material security.  Now

completely lost, his security fades even further away. 

Miserliness and jealous holding do not guarantee that he can keep

his possessions; despite (or perhaps because of) his greed, his

possessions flee his grasp.  He is now pitiful himself and

dependent on the mercy and charity of others:

 

    He wanders weeping far away       


14

    Untill some other take him in     

    Oft blind & age-bent sore distrest

    Untill he can a Maiden win        

 

    Wandering and lost, he thinks his distress can be alleviated

only by winning, conquering a maiden.  He wants her as an object

because he can not live with an independent female.  Although the

woman he finds is not a continuation of the female babe, who has

chosen a path out of the cycle, she does seem to be a

continuation of the earlier females who were bound down. 

Although he is wandering in time and space, he remains in the

same psychological state of egotistical grasping.  When the

female babe breaks out of the cycle, the male keeps the cycle

going by finding a substitute.  Refusing the potential for escape

that he has just been shown, he tries to recapture the domestic

woman of line 27.  He does not come to her or allow her to come

to him, but instead insists on winning her as a prize, thus

perpetuating the cycle of exploitation.  Instead of two mutually

agreeing to come together, one dominates the other, making the

other into an object of torture and perverse pleasure: 

 

    And to allay his freezing Age      

    The Poor Man takes her in his arms 

    The Cottage fades before his sight 

    The Garden and its lovely Charms.

 

Once he grasps the maiden, even the little vision that remained

fades away.  He has reached his limit of age, his limit of

contraction, and now even his false visions disappear.  He has

already been forced (because he was first an exploiter and then a

pitying philanthropist) to leave the cottage, garden, and inn and

wander far away from them.  When he tries to regain what he has

lost, even the re-won cottage and garden fade from his sight. 

Even the possibilities of the kind of perverted love that he

possessed before have disappeared.  His grasping exploitation

destroys life, and so now the whole universe becomes a desert

which his perversions have created for him.  The cycle worsens:

instead of a garden and jewels on which to feed, he has no food

at all.  The guests who had been able to find some kind of

shelter and food are now scattered, just as the old man himself

had previously been driven away:

 

    The Guests are scatterd thro' the land

    For the Eye altering alters all      

    The Senses roll themselves in fear   

    And the flat Earth becomes a Ball.

 

The last two lines of this stanza, although not simple, are

fairly easily understood: Blake consistently prefers a vision of

a flat Earth to that of a round one.  The round Earth is a result

of the roundness of the eye, which is a limitation of the

potential for infinite vision.  The second line of the stanza,

however, suggests Blake's peculiar delineations of perspectives

of vision.  Those perspectives range from a rather simple

concept--our perceptions are limited to our immediate

surroundings--to a complex conceit of vortices that strains even

the best interpretive talents of Northrop Frye and Harold Bloom.

    In a strange (but strangely commonsensical) passage in

Milton, Blake redefines a person's universe as the space in which

he lives:

 

    The Sky is an immortal Tent built by the Sons of Los

    And every Space that a Man views around his dwelling-place:

    Standing on his own roof, or in his garden on a mount

    Of twenty-five cubits in height, such space is his Universe;

    And on its verge the Sun rises & sets. the Clouds bow


15

    To meet the flat Earth & the Sea in such an orderd Space:

    The Starry heavens reach no further but here bend and set

    On all sides & the two Poles turn on their valves of gold:

    And if he move his dwelling-place, his heavens also move.

                                (Milton 29:4-12), E126)

 

A reader might think that Blake is mocking this limited kind of

existence, in which the individual perceives only his own tiny

world.  But as the passage goes one, Blake attacks abstract

cosmography:

 

    Where'er he goes & all his neighbourhood bewail his loss:

    Such are the Spaces called Earth & such its dimension:

    As to that false appearance which appears to the reasoner,

    As of a Globe rolling thro Voidness, it is a delusion of Ulro

                                    (Milton 29:13-16; E126)

 

The reader of Milton is given much help in that poem to grasp

this concept of space: instead of an abstract round globe that

can be conceived only by reason, a globe that no one can

perceive, Blake gives us a homey neighborhood of a universe,

individualized, mobile, and alive.  We do not receive much help

with this concept in "The Mental Traveller," and yet the

conception seems essentially the same: each individual carries a

universe, which can be changed if the individual's perceptions

change, for better or for worse.

    So far, so good.  One of Blake's most notorious passages,

however, ratchets this issue of perspectives up a few notches:

 

    The nature of infinity is this: That every thing has its

    Own Vortex; and when once a traveller thro' Eternity

    Has passd that Vortex, he percieves it roll backward behind

    His path, into a globe itself infolding; like a sun:

    Or like a moon, or like a universe of starry majesty,

    While he keeps onwards in his wondrous journey on the earth

    Or like a human form, a friend with whom he livd benevolent.

    As the eye of man views both the east & west encompassing

    Its vortex; and the north & south, with all their starry host;

    Also the rising sun & setting moon he views surrounding

    His corn-fields and the valleys of five hundred acres square.

    Thus is the earth one infinite plane, and not as apparent

    To the weak traveller confin'd beneath the moony shade.

    Thus is the heaven a vortex passd already, and the earth

    A vortex not yet pass'd by the traveller thro' Eternity.

                                       (Milton 15:21-35)

 

Nurmi uses this passage as a way of explaining what happens in

"The Mental Traveller":

 

    The aged outcast passes through a 'vortex'--that curious optical-symbolic

    phenomenon of Blake's in which a perceiver goes as far with one kind of

    perception as he can and passes through the object, as it were, to the

    other side to a different way of looking at it.26

 

This solid explanation clearly implies the reversal in vision

that happens in the poem: flat planes become spheres as the

perceiver seems to be seeing through the wrong end of a weird

telescope.

    Harold Bloom's explanation captures the doubleness of eternal

vision as he puts center and circumference together:

 

    The vortex is the eddy or whirlpool of eternal consciousness,


16

    whose center is the object eternal consciousness intends. 

    Since center and circumference are not separate in eternal

    vision, the perceiver is at once the apex of his vision, and

    yet able to regard it from a distance.  But when Milton

    passes into Beulah, he leaves eternity for time, and moves to

    the apex of his own vision.  He is thus objectified, and the

    eternal circumference of his vision rolls up behind him.  The

    eddy of perception is solidified into the globed universe of

    Newtonian observation.  What survives of eternal vision

    depends upon the temporal perceiver's imagination, for he can

    still encompass his vortex and see the object world in its

    human dimension (line 27), as "one infinite plane" (32).  27

 

Bloom's explanation may be more obscure than Blake's passage.  As

so often, the best explanation comes from Northrop Frye:

 

    . . . when we see ourselves as imprisoned in a huge concave

    vault of sky we are seeing from the point of view of a head

    that is imprisoned in a concave vault of bone. . . . Blake

    says that everything in eternity has what he calls a 'vortex'

    (perhaps rather a vortex-ring), a spiral or cone of

    existence.  When we focus both eyes on one object, say a

    book, we create an angle of vision opening into our minds

    with the apex pointing away from us.  The book therefore has

    a vortex of existence opening into its mental reality within

    our minds.  When Milton descends from eterntiy to time, he

    finds that he has to pass through the apex of his cone of

    eternal vision, which is like trying to see a book from the

    book's point of view; the Lockian conception of the real book

    as outside the mind on which the vision of the fallen world

    is based.  This turns him inside out, and from his new

    perspective the cone rolls back and away from him in the form

    of a globe.  That is why we are surrounded with a universe of

    remote globes, and are unable to see that the earth is 'one

    infinite plane.'  But in eternity the perceiving mind or body

    is omnipresent, and hence these globes in eternity are inside

    that body.

        Before the Fall, Man was abolute wisdom, and was the

    circumference of everything.  Nothing then existed outside

    Albion: sun, moon, stars, the center of the earth and the

    depth of the sea, were all within his mind and body, a body

    fully conscious of being alive, not only in its brain, but in

    all parts of iteself down to the feet.  Hence 'opening a

    centre,' as described above, is the imagination's way of

    reversing the fallen perspective of the world, and uniting an

    individual imagination with the universal one.28

 

Of course the process in "The Mental Traveller" is the reverse of

the kind of opening that Frye describes.  Instead of achieving a

visionary perspective, the male in the poem is making sure that

he deepens his fallen perspective.

    The reason that the narrator can see what cold earth

wanderers can not is that he has adjusted his vision so that he

sees the opposites of center and circumference simultaneously. 

He has passed through the states of pain and jealousy that

pervade that poem.  But the characters within the poem, with the

possible exception of the female babe and her lover, do not see

clearly and in fact do not take the opportunities offered them to

see clearly.  Instead they perpetuate the cycle of repression,

torment, and submission. 

    The loss of vision and sustenance continues as vision

continues to shrink:

 

    The Stars Sun Moon all shrink away 

    A desart vast without a bound      

    And nothing left to eat or drink   

    And a dark desart all around.

 


17

The Ptolemaic universe, become the Copernican, is now the

Newtonian, where all is mathematical and finite.  Instead of an

infinite flat earth close to the heavenly bodies, the altered

vision of the aged man creates a sterile, mathematical earth,

infertile with nothing but desert.  At least earlier he had been

able to plant a garden, even if it was built on the pain of

another.  Instead of a vision that includes the coincidence of

opposites, this vision can see only separation. 

    Again, it is important to emphasize that the poem itself does

not give us direct reason for hopes of fuller vision, but in

juxtaposition to those poems that do, we can obtain a fuller

understanding of the limits in "The Mental Traveller."

    Now at the limit of sterility, the male figure begins to

return to his childhood. 

 

    The honey of her Infant lips       

    The bread & wine of her sweet smile

    The wild game of her roving Eye     

    Does him to Infancy beguile.

 

The honey seems like the manna in the desert for the children of

Israel in their wanderings.  The bread and wine seem like the

Eucharist.  However, the imagery turns sour as the stanza

proceeds.  The honey and bread and wine become a wild game from a

roving eye.  Flirtation keeps the cycle going.  As a corollary to

the old man who could imagine only a maiden whom he could win and

clutch, now the female can imagine only a man whom she can lead

on, instead of meeting directly.  She does not simply lead or

inspire him but beguiles him, with more than a hint of guile. 

 

    For as he eats & drinks he grows  

    Younger & younger every day       

    And on the desart wild they both  

    Wander in terror & dismay.

 

Again a moment of escape seems to flit past as the male grows

younger to reach the age of the female.  In stanza 6 the terms

"bleeding youth" and "virgin bright" clearly implied that they

were about the same age.  Here in stanza 19 the implication is

more subtle, but as the strange ascent and descent in age

continues, they must once again be at the same age.  Missing

their opportunity, they struggle on, lost and separate. 

    The splitting of male and female is predominant in Blake's

myth, usually based on the Bible creation story, and usually

personified in Los and Enitharmon:

 

    She separated stood before him a lovely Female weeping

    Even Enitharmon separated outside, & his Loins closed

    And heal'd after the separation: his pains he soon forgot:

    Lured by her beauty outside of himself in shadowy grief.

    Two Wills they had; Two Intellects; & not as in times of old.

 

    Silent they wanderd hand in hand like two Infants wandring

    From Enion in the desarts, terrified at each others beauty

    Envying each other yet desiring, in all devouring Love

                        (Jerusalem 86:57-64)

 

He feeds off her, just as earlier the man had made the woman into

his garden.  But this time the female is the active one, he the

willing victim.  In perversions of potential sexual relationships

the female feeds off the pain of the male, and the male feeds off


18

the teasing of the female.  The intensification of the horrors of

the cycle leaves the two main characters now wandering together

and yet apart in the desert.  No longer do we have a rock with

nails, nor do we have a cottage or a garden, all with some kind

of permanence and security.  For security can not be forced, and

the more one tries to force it, the less one has it.  

 

    Like the wild Stag she flees away   

    Her fear plants many a thicket wild 

    While he pursues her night & day    

    By various arts of Love beguild.

 

Now instead of her active teasing, her passive fear is

emphasized.  The result of that fear is a planting of thickets,

obstacles to the male's pursuit.  And yet soon those thickets

change their connotation from obstruction to fertility in the

desert:

 

    By various arts of Love & Hate   

    Till the wide desart planted oer 

    With Labyrinths of wayward Love  

    Where roams the Lion Wolf & Boar. 

 

The second line of that stanza again gives us a glimpse of a

possibility of fertility, but soon that possibility is perverted

into messy "Labyrinths."  In a technique similar to that in the

opening two lines of the poem--"I travelled through a land of Men

/ A Land of Men & Women too"--Blake repeats the last line of

stanza 20 in the first of 21: "By various arts of Love beguild /

By various arts of Love and Hate."  The repetition with addition

reveals a split concealed by the traditional term.  As generic

man includes hidden woman in the first stanza, so generic love

includes hidden hate.  The most basic opposites in human

existence, as many cliches realize, live inextricably together.     

    When the male reaches his renewed youth and the woman her

renewed old age, we feel that we are very close to where we

started.  In fact we are almost there, but before we get to that

terrible promise of repetition of the cycle, we see one more

glimmer of hope, the most beautiful and extended image in the

poem:

 

    Till he becomes a wayward Babe  

    And she a weeping Woman Old     

    Then many a Lover wanders here  

    The Sun & Stars are nearer rolld

 

    The trees bring forth sweet Extacy

    To all who in the desart roam     

    Till many a City there is Built

    And many a pleasant shepherds home.

 

    Many interpreters see this passage as positive, as another

chance for renewal:

 

    The moment when man may return to Eden is at hand, and

    everything is fruitful and productive.  A Second Coming has

    arrived, if only mankind knew it.29

 

    While the male is still a Babe, and the woman is merely

    weeping over the past but is not actively continuing the

    cycle, a brief glimpse of another possibility is presented.30

 


19

    The world that had shrunk and fallen away from the stars, the

world that had become a desert without civilization or shepherds,

has now become a city and a pasture once again.  The labyrinths

of thickets caused by the torments of love and jealousy in

stanzas 20-21 have been transformed into sweet trees.  The beauty

of this scene offers itself for man and woman if they will only

accept it.  The two people are not happy, to be sure, for he is

wayward and she is weeping, but there is hope of possible

repentance here.  After all, hasn't the altering eye provided its

own best environment?  Many lovers wander here how; even if lost,

they may hope that the guests will return, that the mistakes of

the past can be made up for.

    Suddenly, after this respite, the horrors of the cycle

reassert themselves.  There is no joy in the discovery of the

babe this time, as there was in stanza 2.  In fact the babe is

not "born" as he was in the beginning of the poem, marking a new

beginning.  Instead he has reached his present condition by

regressing from adulthood.

 

    But when they find the frowning Babe

    Terror strikes thro the region wide

    They cry the Babe the Babe is Born 

    And flee away on Every side        

                                   

    For who dare touch the frowning form

    His arm is witherd to its root     

    Lions Boars Wolves all howling flee

    And every Tree does shed its fruit 

 

    And none can touch that frowning form

    Except it be a Woman Old            

    She nails him down upon the Rock    

    And all is done as I have told.

 

In the beginning the babe was easily given to the old woman, but

here he can be touched by none but an old woman.  Anyone else who

tries to touch (in order to bind) destroys himself.  Even the

wild beasts that helped make the labyrinths of wayward love more

terrifying are terrified by this new babe.  The trees that had

brought forth ecstasy give up their fruit.

    The last line of the poem--"And all is done as I have told"--

seems to indicate that the cycle will be repeated endlessly.  In

fact, since the babe seems even more terrifying than he did in

stanza 2, the ending implies that the cycle will progressively

worsen.  And yet, despite its apparent bleakness, the poem works

to encourage in us the hope that the horrible cycle can be

broken.  In fact, if the babe can not be so easily rounded up,

perhaps he, like the female babe in the middle of the poem, can

find a new consciousness outside this closed universe.

    Two critics in particular enunciate a hopeful interpretation

of the poem.  Enscoe and Adams both place their faith in the

voice of the narrator.  Enscoe cliams--and his claim I believe

can be allowed only on the strength of the first stanza--that the

narrator clearly speaks from a larger perspective:

 

    Blake has presented an alternative to this world of the male-

    female struggle for domination. . . . a voice speaking from a

    state that allows men to see beyond present reality.31

 

    Adams goes even further to link the narrator with Blake's

creative hero in the later poems and indeed to implicate Los in

the poem itself: "The speaker of the poem is Los and he has been

loved by the female babe."32

                                       

Thus the narrator has actively participated in breaking the cycle

by escaping with the female babe.

    I think that both Enscoe and Adams read too much into the

poem, but I do agree with the spirit of their interpretations. 

Although the poem itself does not provide us with such a robust

hope, we can legimately read it in the context of Blake's later

works, where such robust hope unmistakably appears.  "The Mental

Traveller," then, is the scorching, despairing portrait of human

existence, epitomized in male-female struggles, when caught in

the ratio of limited vision.  It is all the more painful in that

the characters constantly miss the glimpses of a larger, more

poetic vision that would allow them to escape the cycle.

    As the cycle spins, centrifugal force drives the characters

out.  Only the female babe takes the leap provided by such

propulsion.  All the other characters impose the centripetal

force of clinging egotism, trying to hold the sacred, secret

center.  Instead of creating a dynamic interpenetration of

opposites, they create a deadly balance.

 


 

 

Notes to Chapter 6: Blake's "Mental Traveller"

 

1.  Acts of Inclusion (New Haven: Yale UP, 1979), p. 150.

 

2.  Wheels of Eternity (NY: St. Martin's, 1990), pp. 3, 101.

 

3.  The New Apocalypse, (Lansing: Michigan UP, 1967), pp. 215-16.

 

4.  Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry (Princeton UP, 1969), p. 221.

 

5.  Hamlet II.ii.295.

 

6.  Izak Bouwer, and Paul McNally, "'The Mental Traveller': Man's

Eternal Journey," Blake: An Illustrated Newsletter, Winter 1978-

79, p. 186.

 

7.  Cooke, Acts, p. 153.

 

8.  Martin Nurmi, "Joy, Love, and Innocence in Blake's 'The

Mental Traveller,'" Studies in Romanticism, 3 (1964), p. 112.

 

9.  Enscoe, p. 405.

 

10. Nurmi, p. 110.

 

11. Frye, Fearful, pp. 207-35; Nurmi, p. 109.

 

12. Frye, Fearful, pp. 397, 399.

 

13. Enscoe, p. 405.

 

14. Frye, Fearful, p. 72. 

 

15. Bouwer, p. 187.

 

16. Enscoe, p. 406.

 

17. Bouwer, p. 187.

 

18. Bouwer, p. 187.

 

19. Paley, p. 97.

 

20. Hazard Adams, "The Mental Traveller," in Adams, William

Blake: A Reading of the Shorter Poems (Seattle: Univ. of

Washington, 1963), p. 100.

 

21. Enscoe, p. 408.

 

22. Enscoe, p. 408.

 

23. Ault, p. 189.

 

24. Blake's Apocalypse  (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1963), p. 294. 

 

25. "Annotations to Watson," E617. 

 

26. Nurmi, p. 114.

 

27. E829.

 

28. Frye, Fearful, p. 350.

 

29. Nurmi, p. 115.

 

30. Enscoe, p. 412.

 

31. Enscoe, p. 413.

 

32. Adams, "Mental," p. 100.