The Burning Babe & Intro to The Mental Traveler


Holy Poet-Martyr St. Robert Southwell And The Burning Babe (detail), William Hart McNichols 2015

AG: How many were not here last time?. Well, okay.. Gordon Ball’s here and wants to take some pictures so if you don’t mind flashing.. lightning-bolts.. .burning babes… The last time, we dealt with “The Burning Babe”Robert Southwell’s poem, (page) 186. I think I had assigned it so for those of you who haven’t read it, you can read it later, but the idea was that there was this weird image of a burning babe (how many were here then?), burning babe, burning babe. Okay, we’ll look at the burning baby in the air, floating in the middle of the air

Peter Orlovsky: What page?

AG: There’s a Burning Baby on page 186:

Peter Orlovsky: Burning Baby on page 186

AG: “The Burning Baby”. Yes. – “And lifting up a fearful eye to view a fire was near/A pretty baby all burning bright did in the air appear”. I’ve gone over that with the class already. It’s just a mad image of a baby burning in the air. And I said there is a poem by William Blake (which is not in our book) also about a scary baby, an apocalyptic baby. And we went through.. compared “The Burning Baby” to William Butler Yeats’ “Second Coming” poem. And I didn’t have the text of “The Mental Traveller” by William Blake which also has a burning baby of a kind. Did anybody know Blake’s “The Mental Traveler”? Anybody ever read it?

Student: Not really


from William Blake’s “Jerusalem” (plate 25) And there was heard a great lamenting in Beulah

AG: A couple have read it . And most have not. And I said that it was a poem that Yeats dug a great deal. This is at the beginning of the last class, so I just want to   jump up ahead to the burning baby in Blake. It’s a long poem, it’s one of the few Yeats said he did not understand. He couldn’t figure out of William Blake. It’s a cyclical poem, like in the same way that  (James) Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is cyclical, that It begins.. it goes through a whole bunch of metamorphoses and transformations and inside-out images of changing with each other but it comes back to where it began, like the snake biting its tail – the soul of the universe biting its tail.

Student; Ouroboros                 

AG: Ouroboros. Thank you – “The Mental Traveler” – Since its so complicated, (no, it’s not complicated), since it’s so mysterious,. some of the basic interpretations given (if you’d like to know in advance so that you can follow while I’m reading it), is that the burning baby represents Liberty, the history of the adventures of Liberty or the Adventures of Liberty (capital L ) – Freedom. Liberty, throughout the changes of history, as the spirit of Liberty encounters materialistic society (like, you know, people talk about, you know, hippies talk about how “society”, this. – “If it weren’t for society, this”. “If it weren’t for society, this”,“If it weren’t for society, that” – Society with a capital. So, the big “evil Mother Nature”, so to speak, or it might be Nature itself , vegetable or material nature itself versus desire for unlimited freedom bursting the bonds. So..(S) Foster Damon, a great artist on Blake, said it was the Spirit of.. a parable of Liberty. The Man and the Woman, or the Babe and the Lady , and it might be male and female qualities meeting each other and getting (battle) over and over in a cycle, feeding on each other’s strength, and one of them getting big when the other gets small and the other getting small when the other gets big and so forth. The Baby is sometimes considered as “born in joy” but “begotten in dire woe” (in other words, revolution begets the joy of Liberty later on, in other words, people get killed and the Sandinistas (sic) all get shot in Nicaragua, and ultimately there’s some kind of (temporary) revolution – or in Cuba, say, (Fidel) Castro makes it.   But then something happens and the society closes in again and there’s more and more police state and bureaucracy. So it can be a parable about recycled revolution getting more rigidified under bureaucracy.

So the Old Woman is very often interpreted as being Society, or heavy heavy Nature, or the Church (“the Whore of Babylon”), or the State, or Conditioned Existence. And then, the Boy represents Revolutionary Imagination. And… or, let me least new civilizations founded in the wreckage of old . And there’s a point where it gets metaphysical and the flat earth becomes a ball, that’s a sort of parable on the mind shrinking into abstract ideas and conceptual constriction, like Newtonian thought, scientific thought, (as) the limitation of imaginative thought. So the earth that once was an infinite plain shrinks into a little ball. “Frowning babe” could be Jesus, of course, or Jesus’ energy. Like, [Allen quotes  W.B.Yeats here (from “A Vision”) ] “when they find the frowning Babe terror striked through the region wide:/ They cry, “The babe! the babe born”/ And flee away on every side”  (like people run away from (Bob) Dylan’s Jesus trip (sic) – Just like a babe, a babe is born “And flee away in every side” – “The Mental Traveler”

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at the beginning of the tape and concluding at approximately five-and-three-quarter minutes in]

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