Arnold Kettle

The Mental Traveller


This extraordinary and difficult poem has been generally recognised as one of Blake’s most remarkable achievements but very few critics seem to have risked speculating as to what it means. Those who have done so have either lost themselves in the maze of the Prophetic Books or brought forth interpretations of a highly mystical, not to say metaphysical, complexion. The immediate objection to such interpretations is that they bear so little relation to the kind of impact the poem makes. It is in no sense a misty poem, the imagery is extremely concrete, the language entirely direct. Above all it is a terrible poem, almost unbearable in the physical impact of its unshrouded images. Any ‘explanation’ which reduces or muffles that impact or turns it into something different in quality must be suspect. I believe that the difficulty of the poem, like that of most of Blake’s lyrics, is of a different sort from that generally assumed. It is a difficulty that springs less from idiosyncrasy than from unexpectedness. The Prophetic Books are highly idiosyncratic: the mythology is private, the thought obscure and sometimes perverse. But the lyrics are public poetry, complete in themselves, demanding of the reader only that he shall open his consciousness to their fullest impact. The difficulty lies in the nature of that impact. What Blake has to say is odd in the sense that it is seldom said at all and never said precisely as he says it. But it is not odd in the sense of being off-centre, psychopathic, queer. And the difficulty of ‘receiving’ his poetry lies in ourselves rather than in the poetry. What he says is so unexpected — and to many so unpalatable — that the reader can scarcely believe his senses.

In any attempt to interpret a poem like The Mental Traveller — that is to say, any attempt to say not just what it ‘means’ but what it is — the reader’s greatest temptation is to read into the poem what he expects or would like to find there. It is a temptation which must be frankly recognised, but it is also important, that having recognised it, we should not topple over into a temptation even more insidious, the view that denies to a poem any objective existence at all and says, in effect, one man’s guess is as good as another’s. This view — surprisingly common among literary critics (surprisingly because in fact it makes literary criticism an impossibility) — is as dangerous as it is defeatist. We might as well recognise at the outset that no one ever reads any poem with a blank mind, i.e. a mind free of previous experience. The important thing when we read poetry is not that we should try to cast aside all our previous experiences and attitudes but that we should be conscious of them and be prepared to have them changed. My interpretation of The Mental Traveller is that of a Marxist, i.e. of a reader whose previous total experience has led him to a certain standpoint which is indicated by the word Marxist. If I were not a Marxist I should probably not see in Blake’s poem what I do see. But that is no proof that what I see may not be there. The only test must be in a comparison between my interpretation and the words Blake wrote. Other poems of Blake, including the Prophetic Books, may provide useful corroborative evidence and may, in particular, prepare one’s mind for the sort of impact this particular poem has. But if I have forced Blake’s poem into a preconceived mould of my own then my interpretation is of no use. The point I want to make is that every reader does begin with a preconceived mould, conscious or not. The operative word is ‘forced’.

Another problem of method is likely to be raised. Cannot the poem have more than one meaning? It seems to me very probable that it can. Images have a significance and validity on more than one level of experience. But in any case it must always be remembered that the best, the truest interpretation does not take the place of the poem. In an important sense you can never do anything with a poem except respond to it. You cannot put it into other words. The purpose of literary criticism is not to paraphrase literature but to help the reader to come to it prepared.


The Mental Traveller is the description (a word which does not adequately convey what poetry does) of a cyclical process, but the cycle it describes is not symbolic of the whole of life itself. We are taken immediately in the first verse into an imaginary world (mental = imaginary in Blake’s language) which is a symbol of and closely relevant to our world, and it is within this imaginary world that the cycle takes place. This is very important because the temptation is to equate the cycle in the poem with life and the Babe with man. But in fact the imaginary world of the poem has an existence of its own quite outside the cycle of the Babe. The imaginary world of men and women goes on even when the cycle is not operative, i.e. before the birth of the Babe and when (verses 22-3) the people in the cycle have become impotent. The ordinary people of the imaginary world — lovers, shepherds, those who build cities — are terrified of the Babe and of the whole process of the cycle. Indeed it is only in these verses (2, 22, 23) that describe life outside the cycle that a calm and almost pastoral imagery prevails. Fruitfulness and hope are here dominant whereas in the rest of the poem any images of healthy normality are quickly given a twist which hideously inverts them.

This, then is basic to any satisfactory reading of the poem: the cycle (which forms the essential subject of the poem) is a cycle which takes place within (and is therefore not to be identified with) the life of the imaginary world.

What is the relation of the imaginary world to the real world? It is the real world, i.e. it is a vision of the real world in which the life and values of men and women are relevant. And yet (by the paradox of Art) it is more real than the real world. By comparison the people of the real world are ‘cold’ and even not quite natural. The imaginary world is, in fact, Blake’s poetic vision of human life, not different from our life but more intensely seen, its potentialities more profoundly realised. Through the fantasy evoked by the poet’s imagination a firmer grasp on reality is to be achieved. Within the world of the poem the cycle of the Babe, the Old Woman, the grown Man and the Female Babe is imposed and enacted. It is a cycle which begins in joy and is thenceforward hideous and destructive, withering all healthy life of humanity and nature. Three episodes of the cycle are presented to us.

The first and most immediately powerful episode (verses 3-7) is the relationship of the Babe and the Old Woman (the mother). It is a relationship in the revelation of which the most potent insights of Freud are made to seem cold and abstract. To speak of it as a revelation of the full horror of the Oedipus complex is to debase Blake’s poetry, for what is presented here is not to be adequately described as ‘psychological’. With the woman preying on the child are associated images of the most profound significance: the crucifixion, the Promethean legend, the golden cup of the holy grail (itself a sexual symbol going back to primitive fertility ritual), the gold of the miser, the virgin mother, the chains binding mankind, the fertility of the husbandman. Almost the entire cultural, religious and economic foundations of our society are being evoked. And they are evoked to deepen and to colour an image utterly hideous: the woman living upon the shrieks of the child until the situation is reversed and he lives upon her.

In the second episode (verses 8-11) the sum of the achievement of the cyclical man’s life is presented; the cottage filled with gems and gold (note the insistence on gold throughout the poem). And we are left in no doubt as to what the wealth represents in terms of human suffering and frustration. It is perhaps worth recalling here the final verse of The Human Image (first draft for The Human Abstract):

There souls of men are bought and sold
And milk-fed infancy for gold;
And youth to slaughter houses led,
And beauty for a bit of bread.

It is against this revelation of the basis of the man’s wealth that we note his charity and again a stanza from the poem just quoted is not irrelevant:

Pity would be no more,
If we did not make somebody poor;
And mercy no more could be,
If all were as happy as we. [1]

The wealth, which is his meat and drink, is also his grief. These verses have all the paradox of Blake’s dialectic, all the moral profundity of his social vision.

The third episode deals with the relationship of the man and woman within the cycle. The Female Babe is all compact of the elements associated with the poem’s horrors. Like the Male Babe she withers all she touches and her substance is of gems and gold, the significance of which we have already learned. At this point it is emphasised that the people of the cycle are not simply lone individuals — there is more than one of them. The Maiden whom the Man wins is not, apparently, the same Female Babe who has sprung from the fire, but she is similar, involved in the cycle, and will become a Woman Old, playing her allotted part. The relationships of the three cyclical men and women to whom we are referred are both cruel and dreadful in their implications. The first relationship, introduced in the deceptive language of romantic love —

But she comes to the man she loves,
If young or old, or rich or poor, [2]

— involves immediately the driving out and reduction to beggardom of the old man. The second relationship — that of the old man and the maiden — is even more destructive. Again we are at first given the impression of a romantic fulfilment (verses 15-18). The two lovers become involved entirely in each other, oblivious of the outside world, which shrinks away (cf. ‘This bed thy centre is, these walls thy sphere’). In verse 18 it seems — especially if we have given the words ‘fear’, ‘shrink’ and ‘desart’ in the preceding stanzas less than their full value — as though Blake is building up an image of the bliss of the isolated “soul-mates”. The first two lines of verse 19 continue the process; but then comes the shock:

And on the desart wild they both
Wander in terror and dismay. [3]

And once more we see that the images of living on one another are in fact associated not with the fulfilment but with frustration. The lovers — she beguiling him with all her arts, he living on her beguilement — are not happy but wildly unhappy. A labyrinth of fear and hatred is all that they are creating and finally, like the other characters in the cycle, they are reduced to impotence. Then and only then does life — the positive life of men and nature — assert itself, only to be again forced out as the Babe is once more found and the cycle recommences.


The cycle represented in the poem is acquisitive society. The appalling horrors of the poem have all the same source, possessiveness. And the poem is not an allegory. It is not the representation in symbolic terms of an abstract idea. The Babe does not ‘stand for’ acquisitive society (in the way that most interpretations of the poem I have read make him ‘stand for’ one of Blake’s hobby-horses) any more than the Tiger in his most famous poem stands for God or the Devil, as some critics have tried to make out. The Tiger is a tiger, the Babe is a babe. That is the first thing to insist. That they have significance and relevance beyond that of an isolated, non-symbolic image is true; but it is not an abstract significance. The Babe does not stand for acquisitive society; he is a babe within acquisitive society, his potentialities warped and distorted by the possessiveness first of his mother and then of himself.

In the three episodes of the cycle the source of horror is the same. The mother lives upon the child; the man lives upon the mother and then upon the gems and gold, finally upon the maiden. In each case the images are those of eating and drinking: the mother ‘catches his shrieks in cups of gold’; to the man the gems and gold are meat and drink; it is honey and bread and wine of the maiden which he eats and drinks. And in each case the horror is associated directly with these images. It it also associated in each case with images of wealth. ‘The countless gold of the akeing heart’ is one of the central, unforgettable images of the poem, and it is linked with the mother numbering the nerves of the child like a miser counting his gold and with the very essence of the maiden who is the product of fire and gems and gold. It is from these two central, recurring sets of images that we shall get the core and meaning of the poem. They are images of possessiveness and exploitation.

They hold together the three episodes of the poem, which at first appear to have little organic connection. For what Blake is saying is that the psychological and emotional problems of personal relationships are inextricably linked up with the social and economic basis of human activity. This is indeed the principal ‘discovery’, the very essence of the poem. The dreadful mother-child relationship and the no less desperate frustration of the two lovers are presented to us not merely as ghastly, isolated phenomena but as part and parcel of a situation in which human beings spend their lives preying upon each other. Each of the characters in the cycle seeks his satisfactions at the expense of others and what Blake is saying is that personal exploitation is the other side of and inseparable from economic exploitation.

In this vision of bourgeois society Blake goes so deep that to most bourgeois readers the poem is incomprehensible. Since possessive relationships and economic exploitation seem to such readers either natural or inevitable, they find it almost impossible to realise what Blake is driving at; consequently they are disturbed by the poem but cannot understand it. That the cherished symbols of Christianity and the scarcely less sacred concepts of individualist romantic love should be associated with a way of life represented as hideous and frustrating is more than they bargain for in a work of art.

For Blake is not stating in this poem the perfectly respectable view that the Oedipus relationship is common and interesting but that it is typical and horrible. He is not saying that economic success carries with it the obligation to be charitable, but that the good of charity is a poor and inadequate thing beside the evil of exploitation and no generosity can compensate for the situation of either exploiter or exploited. Above all Blake is saying that possessive individualism makes a happy relationship between men and women impossible. The image of the bourgeois man and woman wandering in terror and dismay in the desert which they have created for themselves is one of the most extraordinary insights in our literature. The man and woman, in their desperate attempt to achieve a complete fulfilment in one another, turn away from the social world. Ecstatically they try to live upon each other, the woman using her every art to beguile the man, he desperately desiring to be beguiled. And actually within the relationship there is not security but fear. Love and hate become inseparable. Instead of fulfilment there is a labyrinth of frustration. In Blakean language the emanation is for ever defeated; the spectres triumph.

Inevitably they triumph, for the men and women of the cycle have sacrificed humanity to possessiveness. It is only when humanity triumphs that the emanation — the potentialities of the individual — can be realised and the spectre — the frustrating elements — defeated.

Each man is in his Spectre’s power
Until the arrival of that hour,
When his Humanity awake
And cast his own Spectre into the Lake. [4]

The meaning of The Mental Traveller is that as long as the cycle of acquisitive society continues man is his spectre’s power. It is not a propagandist poem. It does not tell how the cycle can be broken. But with a passionate and dreadful clarity it illuminates the human situation which it reveals.


1 The Poems of William Blake (ed. W. H. Stevenson), Longman, 1971, pp. 157-8.

2 Op. cit., p. 579.

3 Op. cit., p. 580.

4 William Blake’s Writings (ed. G. E. Bentley), Oxford, 1978, Vol. II, p. 932.

SOURCE: Kettle, Arnold. "The Mental Traveller," in Literature and Liberation: Selected Essays, edited by Graham Martin and W. R. Owens, introductory essay by Dipak Nandy (Manchester: Manchester University Press; New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988, pp. 51- 58.

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