Allen Ginsberg on William Blake (“The Mental Traveller’ – 1)

“The Last Trumpet” – drawing by William Blake circa 1780-1785 – in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

AG: It’s time to go into “The Mental Traveller”, which goes into all these different reverses.  A poem which William Butler Yeats said was the most incomprehensible poem in Blake, in the sense of the most brilliant poem of Blake and at the same time the most difficult to understand.  “I travelled through a land of man..” page four seven five

Peter Orlovsky:  In the Keynes, what page is it?

AG: “I traveld thro’ a Land of Men.”  In Keynes, you have to look it up, for those who don’t have it.  You just have to look it up in the back where you have the list of first lines, right?   You all know that the Erdman edition is available –  both the illuminated work and the text is available now at the Naropa bookstore.  So I would recommend everybody invest in it. (They’re a) lifetime bible. Everybody got it?  Does anybody have the Keynes edition, besides Peter?  Want to give it to me?  I’ll see if I can find it.

Peter Orlovsky:  Four seventy five. I’ve got it.

AG: Okay.   This is seen by various people all different ways and nobody knows exactly how to interpret it.  As I said, Yeats didn’t figure it out.  He thought maybe it was … Are both of those working?  These microphones?

Student: Yes.

AG: Both are working. Okay.   Has anybody ever read “The Mental Traveller”?  Raise your hand if you have. [to Student]  Where did you get into “The Mental Traveller”?

Student: I had another Blake class.
AG: Where?
Student: Wabash College, with Bert Stern.
AG: Uh-huh.  Did you go through this in detail at all?
Student: Yeah.
AG: Well, we’ll go through it, too.   And you went through it?
Student: You suggested it on the first class.
AG: Ah.  Here?
Student: Yeah.
AG:  I did, huh?  Good.    And you read it as part of the Kabbalah or something?
Student: Yeah.
AG: Really.
Student: No, it was in Greeley (Greeley, Colorado)
AG:  In Greeley.
Student: We had a class.  We just went through it real quick
AG: Okay.

“I traveld thro’ a Land of Men” –  (Men) –  “A Land of Men & Women too/ And heard & saw such dreadful things/ As cold Earth wanderers never knew” – “Cold Earth wanderers” –  Who are they?  Un-visionary people.  Not very warm, not very human.  “Cold Earth wanderers”.  Un-visioned is sometimes the interpretation of that) – “For there the Babe is born in joy/ That was begotten in dire woe’ – (That might be interpreted as the babe of revolution, or the new freedom, (the new) politic freedom, that was begotten in the clash and blood of armed fury) –  “For there the Babe is born in joy/That was begotten in dire woe.”  (So that might be death and revolution).

Peter Orlovsky:  I don’t understand that:  “For there the Babe is born in joy..”

AG: “That was begotten in dire woe.” – “Begotten” means that the actual creation of it was woeful – “dire woe”.  And if you interpret that as revolution, that could mean the fighting, (the) street-fighting and killing of revolution, but after that final purgation, the liberty,  the “Babe”-like liberty emerging.  That’s one interpretation. That’s all.  It’s not.. The meaning of the poem.. because nobody can figure this riddle out. It’s one way people have answered the riddle, that’s all.  (Do you) follow? Is that clear?

Student: Um-hmm.

AG:  But it also could be like you have a nervous breakdown and lots of “dire woe” in your mind and, all of a sudden, you’re released from your previous personality, or your previous fiction of the universe, and take on another one that’s more joyful.  Or you know, suddenly go out into the street without any conception of what it’s all about and see the sky.  So there the “Babe”..

“I have no name/I am but two days old – /What shall I call thee?/ /I happy am/ Joy is my name – / Sweet joy befall thee!”  (“Infant Joy”) – (The) same “Babe”. It could be the actual literal birth, or the birth of revolution, or the birth of a new vision – “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’ – (On one level, that could be a farming metaphor, like, you reap in joy in the harvest, the fruit which, if not in bitter tears, at least (in) sweaty labor, you sowed. In other words, you had to work real hard to sow the tree, or the plant, and reap, later on, the fruit)

So – “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/  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/ 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.” – (Well, that might be society. In other words, if it’s a new society that’s being born, the society grows young as freedom grows old. i.e., the society takes on strength and begins to grow laws, customs, regents, dances, waltzes, or the..Comintern, what do you call it? these offices – the Union of Writers, the Free School in Venice, California, whatever you want, the New School for Social Research, the Communist Party “She grows young as he grows old” –  Or, the structure, the bureaucracy grows old as the liberty.. the structure or bureaucracy grows in strength (and) grows young as the original inspiration grows old.

Or, it might be quite literal – that the “Woman” here, the “Woman old”, may be Nature – vegetable (or) vegetative nature, (as it very often is in Blake).  The world of illusion – the illusory world of meat vegetable nature, (that is, the mechanistic world. or the world of pure materialistic world, or “the veil of maya,” very often seen in him as feminine).  And as the inspiration or the spirit solidfies into human form, and as senses grow and reach out, and as from the inspiration a solid world is born, and from the conception of existence a solid world is born, with sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, nerves, eyeballs, fingers, sensations, the world of nature traps our free spirits, our “Babe spirits”, and binds iron thorns around our head, very much like Christ. If you interpret Christ as any human who, because born, has to die) – “She pierces both his hands & feet/ She cuts his heart out at his side/ To make it feel both cold & heat”.

Is that making sense?  As interpreted, you know, as being the growth of spirit, the spirit having growths of senses into nature. It’s that reverse thing that Blake is always doing, as the Buddhists do, saying that the world is born from the soul, rather than the soul is born from the world.  That is, the world is a projection.  It’s a projection of our own Poetic Imagination. Including our fingers, including our bodies and then what our bodies contact and where our eyes see.  That the entire phenomenal external three-dimensional forms in space are all our own nightmare, or dream, or day-dream, rather than … well, what else would it be?  Well, it might be something else.

But he’s saying, “She binds…” – (she, nature) – “..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/. Her fingers number every nerve..” – (That’s that Newtonian thing, again, you know, like the ratio,  Newton’s ratio, Newton actually trying to figure out rationally what the universe is) – “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/ 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” – ( So that’s the rebirth of the imagination again.  Imagination, having grown mature, having had experience, having had to deal with this external nature it’s created, suddenly decides, well, why not take advantage of it and fuck it?  Why not play with it? It’s sort of a tantric attitude, actually, the Vajrayana attitude of, seeing as we’ve created this, ignorantly created this immense physical vegetable universe, you can’t abolish it exactly, you’re stuck with it, so what you can do is play with it.  Once you realize that you yourself created it, then you can be playful with it.  Or, in Blake’s term, it’s imagination that has a… that breaks out and takes over.

Okay, now I’m going to read on through this without any more commentary, except one, because we’ve established the basic theme, right?  Then there’s going to be change after change after change, and it gets kind of confusing. Yeats got confused, even.

“Then he rends up his Manacles/ And binds her down for his delight/. / He plants himself in all her Nerves/  Just as a Husbandman his mould/ And she becomes his dwelling place/ /And Garden fruitful seventy fold/ An aged Shadow soon he fades/Wandring round an Earthly Cot/ Full filled all with gems & gold/ Which he by industry had got/  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/ They are his meat they are his drink/ He feeds the Beggar & the Poor/ And the wayfaring Traveller/ For ever open is his door/ 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..” – (Hmm, now what is that?  Well, Foster Damon says that’s Babylon, the false church) – “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/ 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/  He wanders weeping far away/ Until some other take him in/ Oft blind & age-bent sore distrest/ Untill he can a Maiden win/ And to allay his freezing Age/The Poor Man takes her in his arms/ The Cottage fades before his sight/The Garden & its lovely Charms/   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 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/ 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/ For as he eats & drinks he grows/ Younger & younger every day/ And on the desart wild thy both/ Wander in terror & dismay/ 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/ By various arts of Love & Hate/ Till the wide desart planted oer/ With Labyrinths of wayward Love/ Where roams the Lion Wolf & Boar/ 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/ 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.”

That’s really scary, because it’s like one cycle reversed and another cycle and another cycle and another cycle, and then it all comes back to the beginning, like (James Joyce’s) Finnegans Wake, actually.

Who was it who took it in (school)?  [to Student] You had it in school? How did they (interpret it)?  What was the analysis you had?  Was there any explanation?

Student: Well, you know, just how a lot of the imagery plays.. like, you know, how love is exalted and then you have these pyramids and light and worshipping from afar and how sick, then, diseased and unfeeling that is, and (as) you were talking here, I remember, like, it was like a woman’s love and how it’s bastardized now, you know, and…
AG: Um-hmm.
Student: … it makes, you know, the soul shrieks and cries, it’s bound by laws and what’s outlined in the good and moral life, and so he finds out that this is, like, rape and he binds her down for his own delight and …
AG: Um-hmm.
Student: … it’s why, you know, like you have the laws and the rules and religion, and, then, that forces a man into rape, and that becomes like a religion of, oh, black religion …
AG: Um-hmm.
Student: … of evil, and it’s just how those things, you know, rise and fall, and the imagery falls.  That’s all.  We never really understood it.
AG: Um-hmm.  Yeah, well, the imagery of a masculine attacking feminine, I guess that would be partial.  But it wouldn’t then account for all the different changes that it goes through.  But you get a little glimpse.

Nobody has ever figured the thing out entire, but it begins to go logically if you think of it as revolution, or liberty, or freedom, or a sense of freedom, then becoming institutionalized, or, as you were saying, laws.  If you think of the old woman as law, or even as rational law, or even as the rational law that leads to the solidification and appearance of a universe in which we are in a cave numbered by five senses, it’s consistent with his other symbolism and his other thoughts in his other (work). And it’s consistent with a lot of stuff in the prophetic books that we’re reading – the reversals of language, like  Heaven and Hell getting married and Jehovah being the Devil.  Just the reversals are familiar.

If we followed it as the inspiration, or joy, or free conception then (that) slowly becomes entangled in the vegetable world, and maturely realizes that it’s entangled in the vegetable.. vegetative world –  that’s Blake’s phrase, “the vegetative world” – the world of, oh, what?  vegetable appearances, solidity.  [Editorial note – Blake, from Jerusalem – “The vegetative universe opens like a flower from the earth’s center,/ In which is eternity. It expands in stars to the mundane shell/And there it meets Eternity again, both within and without’]

“Then he rends up his Manacles/And binds her down for his delight” – (that is, takes control of the world, sort of Vajrayana control, or tantric control, or magical control, or alchemical control, sort of in the myths of maturity when you finally play with the phenomenal world, take over the phenomenal world rather than being a victim of it.

“He plants himself in all her Nerves/Just as a Husbandman his mould”?  What does “mould” mean?  (Does) anybody know?  M-O-U-L-D?  I think the mould is the farm, I believe.

Peter Orlovsky:  Boundaries?

AG:  I think.  And she becomes his dwelling place.  Or she, being the earth itself, or nature, becomes his dwelling place and garden – fruitful, seventy-fold.  However, he grows old in that nature.  “An aged Shadow soon he fades/Wandring round an Earthly Cot/Full filled..” – (He’s rich, like old Rockefeller) – “Full filled all with gems & gold/Which he by industry had got.” – (emotional industry – This is the eighth stanza) – “Full filled with all the gems and gold” – And then Blake’s ideal of “the gems and gold” are actual emotions, human experiences, the gems  of.., the rubies and pearls of, ” a lovesick eye”/ The countless gold of the aching heart/ The martyrs groan and the lover’s sigh” –  (They’re all somewhat negative in the sense that (they’re)” lovesick”, “aching”, “groan(ing)”, and “sigh(ing)”.  All these emotional experiences are (the) suffering of existence, actually) – “They are his meat, they are his drink/ He feeds the beggar & the poor” –  (well, I guess he gets intoxicated, with the magic attraction of fucking nature, or getting married to nature, marrying nature, identifying with nature, ultimately, or getting lost in nature. Or becoming a big ego in nature, becoming part of nature, captured by nature, enraptured by nature, married to nature, gathering all the pains of nature, and then trying to hand them out to other people, too) – “They are his meat they are his drink/He feeds the Beggar & the Poor.”

Peter Orlovsky:  Well, what is “earthly cot”, C-O-T?

AG: “Earthly cot”.  Cottage, probably.  Earthly cottage.  “Cot” – homestead.  Homestead.  I think there are notes in the back of the book for this.  I just thought of going through this now, that’s why I haven’t looked those up yet.

Student: Doesn’t cot mean like a little bed?

AG: Maybe.  Yes.  Could be cot.  Could look it up in the notes “if the right words are important”. (Do you know the Kerouac poem –[Allen begins singing] By the light/Of the silvery moon/ we too can croon/ love’s tune/ By the light/ Of the silvery moon/ June/ spoon/ Well/You can get it out of a book/If the right words are/important” – from Mexico City Blues ? [84th Chorus]).  I didn’t look them up because I just thought of getting into this now on account of the reversals (and) cycles of reversal. So, it’s in the back. You’ll find it on commentary on page four seven six probably, if anybody’s got time to look that up.  Commentary for four seven six?.  No, it’s not in here. It will be somewhere in (Foster) Damon.

Married to nature.  Becomes his meat and drink and he spreads it around, gives it to beggar and the poor –  “His grief is their eternal joy” – (I guess his consumption of nature, or his familiarity with nature, or his mastery of nature, his immersion in nature makes him rich). From there on, I don’t know – “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” – (Well, Foster Damon says that’s the birth of poisonous religion, or Babylon.  “All..solid fire”)  –  “They soon drive out the aged Host/A Beggar at anothers door.” –  (This is a little bit like Tiriel, grown old.  The old rich king Tiriel) -“They soon drive out the aged Host/ A Beggar at anothers door./ He wanders weeping far away/ Untill some other take him in/ Oft blind & age-bent sore distrest/ Untill he can a Maiden win”- (Well, “Oft blind and age-bent sore distrest/ Untill some other take him in” – that repeats what happened in Tiriel somewhat, the old majestical king of nature suddenly recognizing that he’s dying) – “Untill he can a Maiden win” – (well, what would that “Maiden” be?) – “And to allay his freezing Age/ The Poor Man takes her in his arms” – (and, all of a sudden, nature shrinks and fades) – “The Guests are scatterd thro’ the land” – (that’s very Biblical.  At this point Blake is really prophetic) – “For the Eye altering alters all,” (is) I think, one of the great lines in Blake. It’s like “To live outside the law you must be honest,” of (Bob) Dylan‘s. An abstraction or a generalization which, within its own language, within the very simple, almost vague words, actually means something.  It’s really clear once you get the hang of it. “(T)he Eye altering alters all”,  I’ve oft thought on acid.  That is if, you alter your physiology, alter your eyeball, alter the sense-perceptor, alter the measuring instrument, and the entire body of the universe changes its appearance.  Or, Einstein said the same thing – that the universe is… that you can only describe the universe in terms of your measuring instruments, or the eye – in other words, the universe seems to be made out of pretty colors on account that we have eyeballs. And if you were color-blind that would alter the universe and the universe wouldn’t be any colors at all.  And if everybody was color-blind, that would be the whole story – it would be a colorless universe.  Or if you didn’t smell, it would be a universe without smell.  If nobody had any nose, it would be an odorless universe.  Nobody would even think of odor.  Or maybe they might think of it in a science fiction story, imagine a seventh sense.  Can you imagine another sense than the ones you got?

Peter Orlovsky:  X-ray.

AG: Yeah, you might.  X-ray sense.  Well, of course Blake said earlier in “There Is No Natural Religion” that if the universe were only a ratio of our senses and there were no imagination, then it would just be this constant boring repetition of what we already know.  So he was saying you could imagine far other worlds and other seas, actually.  In any case, “the Eye altering alters all.” –  (The mind altering altering everything)

“The Senses roll themselves in fear/And the flat Earth becomes a Ball” – ( this is like Newton’s reason and death) -“the flat Earth becomes a Ball.”  (That is, that sort of Newtonian reason and kind of rational approach) – “The Senses roll themselves in fear” – (that sort of claustrophobia of a mathematical, literal, mechanistic interpretation of the universe) – “The Senses roll themselves in fear/And the flat Earth becomes a Ball” – (a mechanistic universe – unpierceable by imagination, or uninflatable, or unconquerable. Say, a universe, where Rocky Flats and plutonium as a scare (it’s going to wipe everybody out)  was the ultimate Jehovaic, Urizenic fear, and we couldn’t imagine any other. We couldn’t imagine ourselves happy to be destroyed, couldn’t imagine ourselves so completely irresponsible that it doesn’t make any difference. It would be a horrible universe if you couldn’t laugh at your own destruction. In other words, if you were stuck with the fear-mongers, if you were stuck with the creators of plutonium, if you were stuck with their imagination, or their reasons (“give us the weapons we need to protect ourselves”) – if you were stuck in their universe, in their mechanistic universe, or Urizenic universe, you really would be trapped with a roof on.

Student: If you can’t laugh at your destruction, how are you going to laugh at the creation …
AG: Um-hmm.
Student: …of the phenomenal universe. If it’s…
AG: Um-hmm.
Student: …just a shifting…
AG: Um-hmm.  Yeah.  Is this a question to me?
Student: No, it’s just like a…

AG: Oh.  How do you say..?  I don’t know quite how to say that, what I’m trying to say – that the material universe is laughable. I mean, it isn’t laughable, naturally, as we all get pain, and, like, I could begin laughing, and somebody could hit me in the face with a sledge hammer, and I’d stop laughing, I’m sure. But on the other hand, what might have come out (of) the other side of my head might be a few blue in a cartoon

Student: What would you be laughing at…if you weren’t laughing at that?

AG: Well, what I’m trying to define (is) what I mean by “laugh”. It’s not exactly literally giggling while your teeth are being knocked out, but it’s some other imaginative space that might be happening while your teeth are being knocked out.  You might actually be sort of floating above the room, observing it, while your teeth are being knocked out.  Or, I was reading the other day in William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience some story of some guy who’s in such utter and dire pain that, it’s not exactly as if he left his body as he was being tortured over some.. for some religious reason, instead, he said, he suddenly began delighting in it, realizing it was..  I think he was a guy who was hung on Christ and he was realizing he was sharing Christ’s crucifixion and suddenly became filled with bliss.

Student: Was he (hallucinating) at the time?

AG:  No, he wasn’t, and he was not on drugs, it was just on the natch, on the natch..

Student: Isn’t that the nature of revelation, that you just see things, the world
AG: Yeah.
Student: …a little different. You know, it’s like a spatial awareness rather than that fix..
AG: Um-hmm.
Student: …of the ego material orientation.
AG: Yeah.
Student (2): It’s another way of saying it is like being in a world and not of it.  You know when you’re..
AG: Yeah.
Student (2): (part of..)
AG: Yeah.
Student: (part of, you’re serious, the depth of…)

AG: Um-hmm.  Well, the sort of meditation experience is that – that is, you’re in it and not of it.  The traditional Buddhist formulation (is) that “form is emptiness” satisfies that.  But I’m just wondering, what,  aside from philosophic formulae, like “in the world and not of it,” (and) “form is emptiness”, what exact psychological experience we’ve had that’s like that, that could be related to (it) in terms of an actual phenomenal experience, besides maybe sitting practice.

Student: This kind of myth, (of) being driven into the desert, is that suffering and fire, is revelational.

AG: Um-hmm.  We’ve all had it in a way, otherwise we wouldn’t be looking at these weird poems.  We’ve all had something cling – “The Stars Sun Moon all shrink away/A desart vast without a bound”-  ([to Student] just like you said, driven into the desert). “And nothing left to eat or drink/And a dark desart all around.”  – (Well, what is that?  He gets fixed in a mechanistic universe in a way, here)- “The Stars Sun Moon all shrink away/A desart vast without a bound” is a little bit like the description of the existential void in Paris of 1950,  the ‘Fifties theory of Existentialism. The psychology and theory of Existentialism was the….

tape ends here – to be continued  

[Audio for the above can be found here, beginning at approximately eighteen minutes in and concluding at approximately forty-eight-and-a-quarter minutes in]

[Editorial note – early Naropa addresses by Allen of Blake’s “The Mental Traveller”  can be found here  here here and here]   

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