One of Blake’s best poems is “The Mental Traveller.” A close reading of the thing here is beyond our scope, but essentially it is a terrifying, hallucinogenic vision of the cycle of history in the fallen natural world – a cycle we must escape if we are truly to be free. It only has a few archetypical characters that morph in a cycle. Here are some representative lines.
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 & feet
She cuts his heart out at his side
To make him feel both cold & heat
Her fingers number every Nerve
Just as a Miser counts his gold
She lives upon his shrieks & cries
And She grows young as he grows old
Till he becomes a bleeding youth
And she becomes a virgin bright…
[In the end, the poem cycles back to the beginning –]
Till he becomes a wayward Babe
And she a weeping Woman Old
She nails him down upon the Rock
And all is done as I have told
Russell Edson’s weird little poem “The Parental Decision” takes Blake’s visionary allegory of world history and wrecks it by translating it into the mundane day-to-day world of household decisions. Here is the whole poem.
A man splits into two who are an old woman and an old man.
They must be his parents. But where is the man? Perhaps he gave his life for them …
I ask the old couple if they’ve seen their son.
The old woman says, we’ve decided not to have any children.
If modern poems seem weird and impossible to understand, it is often the case that you are just missing another text that the poem you are reading is thinking of.