AG: There is another odder way of looking at it that I always dug, in Blake, in “The Mental Traveller”. Does anybody know that poem? – “The Mental Traveller”? – It’s one of the strangest poems ever written, which (W.B) Yeats, who was a great commentator on Blake, still found indecipherable. It’s somewhat a cycle that comes back to itself – like a long story-poem, like a dream, like our own existence, or like Finnegan’s Wake, a construction that begins somewhere in the universe and comes right back to the same spot, having gone through various different universes, or births-and-deaths, or re-births. I’ve never fully understood it, but I’ve been lately advised to take it as a political parable – that the “Babe” that is born, is Political Liberty, or Intellectual Liberty, or Spiritual Liberty, or Spiritual Open-ness – but maybe, more specifically, political, and the old woman (“Woman Old”) is custom and society closing down. So it’s a little bit, maybe, similar in theme to the Wordsworth ode, and carries some of the suggestion of continuous change and transformation as re-birth that Whitman suggested (at least as an idea). But it’s couched so mysteriously that it seems to come out, not so much from the social womb but from the actual womb of consciousness, because it talks about the perceptions themselves, so it’s not just political liberty, it’s also, I guess, a wakening – Buddha-mind, or wakening – (that’s) also referred to here – [Allen reads the first two stanzas of Blake’s “The Mental Traveller”] – “I travel’d thro’ a Land of Men/A Land of Men & Women too/And heard and saw such dreadful things/As cold Earth wanderers never knew./ 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” – I’ll interrupt the rhythm of this just to make one (comment) – “For there the Babe is born in joy./ That was begotten in dire woe” – that might be, then, political liberty coming out of blood revolution. Is that clear? (or it’s been interpreted that way) – [Allen continues reading the poem, the next twenty-five stanzas, to the end] – “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. 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”..”Her fingers number every nerve/Just as a Miser counts his gold/She lives upon his shrieks and cries/And she grows young as he grows old”… “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” – Figure that out. It’s actually the reverse of consciousness, as well as political liberty. I think it was David Erdman and Mark Schorer (two critics who have written books on Blake) who were interpreting that as cycles of civilization, or cycles of social constriction and expansion.
While we’re on Blake, there is a portion of “Jerusalem” which I want to get to, which is politically visionary also.
What was going on in “The Mental Traveller” – remember, the title is “The Mental Traveller”. Has anybody ever looked at that and figured that out? Has anybody ever puzzled over that one? (Philip) Whalen, do you know it? Have you ever thought about that?
Philip Whalen: Yeah.. a little.. I would suggest Northrop Frye’s book on Blake. His interpretations are usually pretty sensible and useful, probably – The book called “Fearful Symmetry“. Maybe he has something to say.
AG: In our library, I think we have (S) Foster Damon’s “(A) Blake Dictionary”, which actually tries to define a lot of the concepts in Blake (like “The Mental Traveller”, the “Babe” and “Woman Old”). Yeah?
Student: That poem’s also dealt with very interestingly in the novel, The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary
AG: Yeah. The great line in it that I always took was, the Buddhist line, so to speak, or the line that was nearest to LSD, or the line that was nearest to one’s own experience – “…the Eye altering alters all” – which is a terrific conception, a terrific statement. The Eye altering, alters all” – ah! – “For the eye altering alters all” – Well, anybody who puts on eye-glasses knows that anyway, but anybody who’s dropped acid knows that, and anybody who’s had some kind of ecstatic visionary experience knows that.. anybody who’s dropped acid knows, or anybody who’s got drunk, I suppose, will know – “..the Eye altering alters all” – It’s a great way of saying it. Yeah?
Student: In the beginning of the poem, it seems to me, there might have been a little bit about the role of the poet – like Whitman was saying (about) how the country absorbs the poet the way the poet absorbs the country?..or like .. the poet is sucking all the strength out of the country and the country puts him on (the cover of) Time magazine and then sucks all the strength out of him..
AG: Uh-huh. Yeah. There is a certain way that you can follow it up to a certain (point). You can follow it through that way. But it’s not the poet. It’s just, like, the birth of consciousness in to the vegetable universe, which is the woman who “..numbers every nerve,/ Just as a miser counts his gold” – that having experience of the world at all begins to limit and number and count and measure. What (happens is the) “shades of the prison house begin to close upon the growing boy” (same thing as Wordsworth) . His fingers “number every nerve, just as a miser counts his gold” . It could be seen as that. But, actually, it’s just the birth of consciousness and growth, growth in a body.
[Audio for the above is available here, starting approximately ten-and-a-half-minutes in, through to approximately twenty-one-and-three-quarter minutes in]