William Blake (1757-1827), the English mystical artist and poet, compiled a handwritten collection of ten poems, which would eventually be published in 1866, nearly forty years after his death. The poems are thought to have been written sometime in the first decade of the nineteenth century. The collection became known as the Pickering Manuscript, after the collector who bought it the year it was published.
Of the three poems, “The Mental Traveller” is considered the most difficult to understand: in political terms, it has been interpreted as the struggle between society and individual liberty. But “The Mental Traveller” is far more than a political allegory. Its early stanzas hint at the Crucifixion, and conflicts between men and women, and parents and children, pervade most of the poem.
“The Mental Traveller” begins:
I traveld thro’ a Land of Men
A Land of Men & Women too
And heard & 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
(The rest of ”The Mental Traveller” can be read on WikiSource.)
The first stanza of “The Mental Traveller” contains the only reference to the narrator of the title. It inspired the collage above: a traveler who mentally journeys through a land where human suffering predominates and joy is sporadic. The mental traveler is unscathed but not untouched by what he witnesses there. Through his empathy he shares sorrow without being ravaged by it.