The Mental Traveller

by William Blake

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 504

In any analysis of “The Mental Traveller,” the narrator is one of the main puzzles. He tells the reader next to nothing about himself, yet the poem cannot be fully understood unless the speaker’s perspective is somehow identified. There is a clue to his viewpoint, however, in the first two lines, in which the mental traveler says he has traveled through “a Land of Men/ A Land of Men & Women too.” These lines are not redundant: The narrator suggests by the clarification in the second line that he is from a world in which the sexes are not separated, an androgynous realm that in Blake’s myth is called Eternity. Thus he sees this land of men and women from the perspective of an eternal and presents it, not as some “cold Earth wanderer” might, but in his own visionary terms. According to Blake’s myth, in Eternity or Eden the male and female principles are combined: There is none of the discord described in “The Mental Traveller” because men and women are united in a harmonious whole. From the point of view of the mental traveler, then, the idea of separate men and women is very troubling—it can only lead to conflict and suffering.

If the mental traveler is an eternal, the land he describes is Earth, shaped in the poem by the narrator’s eternal perspective. In Blake’s myth, this land would most likely be identified as generation, or the state of experience, a vision of life that is described in his Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794). As several of Blake’s other works make clear, in experience men and women are trapped in cycles. In some of these cycles, a revolutionary youth (often called Orc) rises up against the tyrant lawgiver (named Urizen) and defeats him, only to turn into a tyrant himself. Ultimately, another revolutionary youth appears, and the cycle is repeated. Violence begets violence, with no end in sight.

In terms of male versus female, the same process can be observed. Love turns into competition, and wiles and manipulation replace sincerity and innocence. The male and female archetypes in “The Mental Traveller” can never meet each other as equals: One is either older or younger than the other, and the relationship as a whole is characterized by bondage and submission, not cooperation and progress. The visionary presentation of the human condition presented in the poem is thus a fearful judgment on human life, which the traveler views as an endless cycle of violence and futility. The only way out of this cycle is for the men and women trapped in it to see themselves as the traveler sees them, to expand their mental vision and achieve a state of enlightenment in which separation would be replaced by unity, repetition by progress. In other words, the people of this fallen world need to know the nature of their existence and their power to transform it, for, as the narrator says, “the Eye altering alters all.”

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