The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 488 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 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...

(The entire section is 499 words.)