“The Mental Traveller,” written in 1803 but not published until 1863, consists of twenty-six long-measure quatrains, a stanza form commonly used in ballads. Since each line has four beats, the measure is considered longer than that found in more traditional ballad stanzas, in which every other line has only three beats. The poem’s title refers to its narrator, a traveler from another mental realm who observes and describes the cycle of suffering in the “Land of Men & Women.”
Perspective is an important element in William Blake’s poetry, and it is important to realize that the traveler’s perspective on human experience differs from the experience of the men and women themselves: The “dreadful things” the traveler hears and sees are things that “cold Earth wanderers never knew.” Thus, rather than narrating the life stories of individuals, the mental traveler describes male and female archetypes that exemplify, in general terms, the nature of existence in the material world.
The narrator begins his description of the cyle of life with a grim recounting of the birth of a baby, “begotten in dire woe,” who, if it is a boy, is nailed to a rock, crucified, and cut open by an old woman. As the boy becomes older, however, the woman grows younger, and their violent relationship is reversed: The male tears off his chains and “binds her down for his delight.” Even at this early stage in the poem, the narrator makes it clear that the male-female relationship in the land of men and women is characterized by inequality and struggle rather than by harmony. Moreover, since the female is associated with nature (she is the male’s “Garden fruitful Seventy fold”), this discord also exists between man and nature.
As the man grows older, he piles up wealth in a vampirelike way, feeding on “The martyrs groan & the lovers sigh.” The female, however, becomes a baby, and in time she and her lover drive the man from his house. As a beggar, the male character wanders until he can find a maiden to embrace “to Allay his freezing Age.” His embrace of the maiden leads to the contraction of his senses (“For the Eye altering alters all”), and he begins to grow younger. “By various arts of Love beguild,” he pursues the maiden into a wasteland. Ultimately, he becomes the “wayward Babe” and she turns into the “Woman Old” described in the beginning of the poem. This frowning baby strikes terror into shepherds and wild animals, and none can touch him until the old woman nails him to a rock and begins the cycle all over again.
From the mental traveler’s point of view, then, human life is an endless cycle of conflict between male and female, man and nature, rich and poor. Because men and women are not aware of this cycle, they are condemned to repeat all of the “dreadful things” the poem describes.
The structure of “The Mental Traveller” can be represented by a circle, and since the poem ends as it begins, the circle can be seen as constantly revolving. Among other things, this circle reflects the cycle of the seasons, the periods of life, and recurrent myths. Since the circle is never broken, no permanent change can take place in the land of men and women—everything must be repeated. Not even death interrupts the cycle. After growing old, the male character embraces a maiden and reverses the aging process.
Nature is symbolized by the female figure in the poem, and the male character uses nature both as a garden and as a source...
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of rejuvenation. When the female is “a Virgin bright,” he “plants himself” in her—a phrase that suggests both sexual intercourse and agriculture—and gains riches from her. Then, however, the female figure disappears and the male loses his vitality—his connection with nature and life seems to be severed as he grows older. While she reappears as fire, he experiences winter, and his “freezing Age” is reversed only when he can embrace a maiden. Thus, while the female archetype in the poem represents nature, vitality, and life, the male tends to fade, freeze, and create, through his altering vision, a vast desert. Toward the end of the poem, the male character takes the form of a baby who has the power to wither arms, drive animals off the land, and make fruit fall off trees. Thus the poem moves through the planting of spring, the harvesting of summer and fall (stanzas 8-9), and the freezing of winter (stanza 15), and then retraces the natural cycle so that the process is repeated. Throughout this process, the male lives off the female like a parasite; she, in her turn, beguiles and then nails down the male. In “The Mental Traveller,” the natural cycle is seen as a battleground between the male and female archetypes: No progression is possible, since progression cannot exist without some kind of cooperation.
In keeping with the “dreadful” nature of the cycle in “The Mental Traveller,” Blake uses sadomasochistic imagery to describe the relationship between the male and female archetypes in the poem. The baby boy is given to an old woman who commits a series of violent acts against him: She nails him on a rock, “binds iron thorns around his head,” “pierces both his hands & feet,” and “cuts his heart out at his side/ To make it feel both cold & heat.” She lives, sadistically, for his shrieks. When the boy grows older, however, the violence is reversed, and he binds her down. As the fingers of the old woman “number every Nerve” of the male character, so the male character “plants himself in all [the] nerves” of the female figure. Human relationships, the poem suggests, are predicated on bondage and torture, and one of the most important cycles of “The Mental Traveller” is the tragic cycle of violence begetting violence.