INFANT SORROW "My mother groand! my father wept. Into the dangerous world I leapt: Helpless, naked, piping loud; Like a fiend hid in a cloud. Struggling in my fathers bands: Striving against my swadling bands: Bound and weary I thought best To sulk upon my mothers breast."Readers of The Mental Traveller react in a wide variety of ways just as they do to The Tyger. The two poems both deal with contraries and contradictions which are mystifying to a superficial reading. Deeper thought about The Mental Traveller requires acquaintance with the concepts which Blake puts forth in his other work. Acquaintance with the bible, history, literature and psychology can contribute to understanding the metaphors and symbols which he uses. Even with a careful reading individuals can conclude the poem incorporates the whole esoteric import of Blake's work, or, in contrast, that it deals with ordinary relational or emotional experience in this world. We see it according own gifts or needs.
You will develop your understanding as you work through the 26 verses of the poem. In my next several posts, I will share the thoughts I have as I look at it verse by verse. You may agree with some of what I say and disagree with other. I hope your final (or tentative) understanding will be your own. The title of the poem may mean little to you now; by the end its meaning may have expanded.
"I travelled through a land of men,
A land of men and women too,
And heard and saw such dreadful things
As cold earth wanderers never knew."
Psychologically I think this first verse would indicate that becoming a traveler rather than a wanderer in the world of generation (men and women) requires a choice and a commitment. There are things to be learned but unless the eyes are opened, and steps are taken with deliberation, one remains within the group consciousness which prevents one from seeing things as they are. The idea that one must embark on a journey is a recurring theme in Blake. Gates of Paradise begins with the babe encased in the chrysalis with the potential for development. The Mental Traveller has started the journey and sees things that are not pretty or pleasing, but this is the price of pursuing the path of experience.
Dreadful is used as a subjective term; what one person fears another anticipates. The wanderer avoids letting these dreadful things into consciousness and so limits himself to the known, the comfortable and the dull.
All Religions are One, (E1)
"PRINCIPLE 4. As none by traveling over known lands can find out
the unknown. So from already acquired knowledge Man could not
acquire more. therefore an universal Poetic Genius exists"
The fearful symmetry is the contraries; what burns bright in the night
are the 'dreadful things'. By letting oneself see and hear these
'dreadful things' an opening is created for the appearance of the babe.
"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;"
Blake introduces the contraries: joy and woe, reap and sow, begotten and born. We are entering a new phase. The period of joy begins with the birth of the babe. The period of tears and woe have produced a new beginning.
Auguries of Innocence (E 491)
"Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know
Thro the World we safely go
Joy & Woe are woven fine
A Clothing for the soul divine
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine
The Babe is more than swadling Bands
Throughout all these Human Lands"
"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."
The babe who is born a boy, as male, represents the spiritual nature. So we will look at the situation from the perspective of spirit. Being bound to matter, to fallen nature, to Vala is agonizing. The boy is forced to forgo the expression of his energy and desire. But he was given to the old woman; he is born into materiality. (As in one of Blake's images, his Spectre has had a body woven for him by Enitharmon.) The woman is in need of what he can give, even his shrieks of pain. He is aware of receiving nothing in return.
In verses 1-3 the stage is set. Our Traveller is journeying through the land of men. He sees that a babe joyfully has been born out of the struggle and sorrow which preceded him. The babe is given to an old woman who deprives him of his freedom.
Here is another blog post which sheds light on The Mental Traveller.