Friday, January 11, 2013

Plants himself in all her nerves

"T'is a curious poem," my English lecturer once said. He was a curious creature himself; a tweedy Oxford scholar who'd ended up in the Antipodes teaching the colonials modernist and Irish literature. I could see why he loved it there in Otago - maybe he was the proverbial big fish but I also saw his delight in the odd student who stepped up to his standards. In my obligatory interview with him over an assessment, he was amazed and disappointed that I was doing four units and he discounted me after that.
"You should only be doing two!" (of his units, of course)
I explained that as an exchange student I was obliged to do four, that Pacific Origins in Archaeology and Maori History were making up the quota so I could migrate thousands of kilometres for him to lecture me on Synge, Faulkner and Beckett.

The anthrop and history classes fed me and the exams were easy but the tweedy professor's exams were worth eighty percent of our final semesters' mark. Yes. Eighty percent, for essays on Borges, Wordsworth, Joyce and Faulkner. The exam question for Borges was the one story from Labyrinths that I hadn't read; The Garden of Forking Paths. That story still gives me post-traumatic shudders to this day when I think of the quietening hall, the collective groans and my utter dismay. I can imagine maths exams carrying some weight for a final mark but modernist literature? Irish literature between 1850 and 1950? I will always associate The Garden of Forking Paths as a horrifying experience and it has nothing to do with the story tale itself.
Passed. Just.

Anyhoo, here is the 'curious poem'.
If you've ever read one of my tyger tales, you will see that I've stolen a line or two. I didn't realise it at the time. Blake has been known to write about Tygers but I had no idea I'd internalised this poem so well. No excuses. I can only own my heartfelt larceny ... Read on. It's a (curious) ripper.

The Mental Traveller
by William Blake (1757 - 1857)

I travell’d thro’ a land of men,
A land of men and women too;
And heard and saw such dreadful things
As cold earth-wanderers never knew.

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.

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.

She binds iron thorns around his head,
She pierces both his hands and feet,
She cuts his heart out at his side,
To make it feel both cold and heat.

Her fingers number every nerve,
Just as a miser counts his gold;
She lives upon his shrieks and cries,
And she grows young as he grows old.

Till he becomes a bleeding Youth,
And she becomes a Virgin bright;
Then he rends up his manacles,
And binds her down for his delight.

He plants himself in all her nerves,
Just as a husbandman his mould;
And she becomes his dwelling-place
And garden fruitful seventyfold.

An agèd Shadow, soon he fades,
Wandering round an earthly cot,
Full fillèd all with gems and gold
Which he by industry had got.

And these are the gems of the human soul,
The rubies and pearls of a love-sick eye,
The countless gold of the aching heart,
The martyr’s groan and the lover’s sigh.

They are his meat, they are his drink;
He feeds the beggar and the poor
And the wayfaring traveller:
For ever open is his door.

His grief is their eternal joy;
They make the roofs and walls to ring;
Till from the fire on the hearth
A little Female Babe does spring.

And she is all of solid fire
And gems and gold, that none his hand
Dares stretch to touch her baby form,
Or wrap her in his swaddling-band.

But she comes to the man she loves,
If young or old, or rich or poor;
They soon drive out the Agèd Host,
A beggar at another’s door.

He wanders weeping far away,
Until some other take him in;
Oft blind age-bent, sore distrest,
Until he can a Maiden win.

And to allay his freezing age,
The poor man takes her in his arms;
The cottage fades before his sight,
The garden and its lovely charms.

The guests are scatter’d thro’ the land,
For the eye altering alters all;
The senses roll themselves in fear,
And the flat earth becomes a ball;

The stars, sun, moon, all shrink away
A desert vast without a bound,
And nothing left to eat or drink,
And a dark desert all around.

The honey of her infant lips,
The bread and wine of her sweet smile,
The wild game of her roving eye,
Does him to infancy beguile;

For as he eats and drinks he grows
Younger and younger every day;
And on the desert wild they both
Wander in terror and dismay.

Like the wild stag she flees away,
Her fear plants many a thicket wild;
While he pursues her night and day,
By various arts of love beguil’d;

By various arts of love and hate,
Till the wide desert planted o’er
With labyrinths of wayward love,
Where roams the lion, wolf, and boar.

Till he becomes a wayward Babe,
And she a weeping Woman Old.
Then many a lover wanders here;
The sun and stars are nearer roll’d;

The trees bring forth sweet ecstasy
To all who in the desert roam;
Till many a city there is built,
And many a pleasant shepherd’s home.

But when they find the Frowning Babe,
Terror strikes thro’ the region wide:
They cry ‘The Babe! the Babe is born!
And flee away on every side.

For who dare touch the Frowning Form,
His arm is wither’d to its root;
Lions, boars, wolves, all howling flee,
And every tree does shed its fruit.

And none can touch that Frowning Form,
Except it be a Woman Old;
She nails him down upon the rock,
And all is done as I have told.


  1. I looove William Blake. For me, more for his unique imagery. But I like his poetry too. One of his verses introduces my thesis. Many thought him completely mad but he was a visionary. And when/if you can decipher his obscure symbolism, it's obvious he was quite brilliant.

    I agree, pretty extreme basing 80% of a result on one assessment. Especially if you hadn't read that particular book. You must have done some pretty fancy footwork to pass.

    1. Yes, a fellow Blake fan (puts up hand).
      I picked one of the stories I knew well (Library of Babylon), rewrote his question, let him know I hadn't read that one story and picked apart Library instead. He seemed to be happy with that.
      If you ever get the chance, have a read of Jorge Luis Borges. He wrote short stories that are three or four pages long with the complexity of a novel and pretty much guaranteed to do your head in. Wonderful stuff.

    2. Library of Babel, sorry. I always get that confused with the Lottery of Babylon.

  2. Enough or too much! William Blake.

  3. Enough, already, you reckon Merc?

  4. The path of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
    William Blake.