In Sept 2021, Iain Sinclair gave a talk to the Blake Society about how Blake’s poem, The Mental Traveller, became the map and model for a lifetime of journeys and pilgrimage quests. The Mental Traveller was an awakening, to be experienced but not yet understood. The poem returned at various points in the years that followed, until it was acknowledged as the secret code for Sinclair’s most recent book, The Gold Machine, a late-life expedition to one of the sources of the Amazon, in the footsteps of his great-grandfather.
The Gold Machine AND the Mental Traveller: an Introduction
Iain Sinclair, The Gold Machine Beats… A Jungle Death Photo Album, Coventry: Beat Scene Press.
Iain Sinclair, Blake’s Mental Traveller and The Gold Machine, an improvised talk to the Blake Society, 15th Sep 2021.
Basil Bunting, Briggflatts
Iain Sinclair, email to the author, Sep 2021
The Mental Traveller
The Mental Traveller—a poem from the Pickering Manuscript, which contains otherwise unknown works Blake collected in a fair copy sometime in the early 1800s—is one of Blake’s most enigmatic creations. While sections of The Four Zoas or Jerusalem can seem opaque, The Mental Traveller combines the same (apparent) obscurity with a great clarity in the imagery used and concision in how it is organised. It is terse and vivid, a knotty conspectus of Blake’s central myth:
Because The Mental Traveller is a radically compressed version of Blake’s most important theme, that of a man’s fall from and return to Eden, and an audacious announcement of reality’s mental nature, a mastery of its form and its visionary conceit is, in microcosm, the mastery of Blake.
Izak Bouwer and Paul McNally, ‘The Mental Traveller’ and Man’s Eternal Journey1
But there’s danger in even thinking of summarising or compressing Blake, whose complexity and seeming obscurity do not indicate some type of failure to achieve the transparency required of a regional news reporter, but are deliberate rhetorical gestures. His work embodies multiple perspectives, and uses many voices as part of its fabric, which is why all attempts to date to neatly distil his system into a story have produced only shadows and projections.
Blake famously sought to create his own ‘system’, so as not to “be enslav’d by another Mans”. But in the next line after saying this, he adds, “I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create”.2 This vital clue is usually ignored, so let’s spell it out: Blake’s ‘system’ is not a system on a par with other systems. It is unreasonable and unsystematic. Blake’s myths can perhaps be made to line up as stories, but they each also “open up within into immensity”. His myths aren’t a coded way of transmitting a stable doctrine, but portals into the spiritual universe of Blake’s imagination, a view of the imaginative body of Christ, in which the characters (Orc, Urizen, Vala, Enitharmon and the rest) all have their say, yet rarely can they be assumed to speak on Blake’s behalf (not even Los, an occasional cipher for Blake as an artist).
The result is that The Mental Traveller can function as a sort of overclocked contraption for showing its reader what they most need to see. And that is why it was intriguing to think of Iain Sinclair leaning into it to tell the Blake Society what he found there, and how it had led him finally to write his latest book, The Gold Machine.
The Gold Machine
Sinclair has long been London’s psychogeographer-in-chief, combing the city against the grain and sounding its depths so his readers might experience it anew, often sensing it shudder into life in his hands as it gives up its secrets. He haunts limnal spaces and times out of joint, all the better to evoke those marginal people driven and drawn to the edges by history—the ‘cancelled classes’, bohemians, and other peripatetics, drifters, dreamers and losers. Having carved out this space on the back of his engagement with the counter culture (recording Ginsberg for his 1967 film Ah! Sunflower) and radical poetry (editing the collection, Conductors of Chaos), Sinclair has pursued, tracked and worried London to bits in works such as Lights Out for the Territory (1997), London Orbital (2002), Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire (2010), and The Last London (2017), among many other studies and essays, and some remarkable collaborations with Andrew Kotting, Marc Atkins, Brian Catling and Alan Moore, among others.
,Given this, it was a surprise to learn that he was going to dust off his passport for his next book, involving no less than a trip to the cloud mountains of Peru, into the headwaters of the Amazon, on the trail of his great-grandfather, Arthur Sinclair. Sinclair Senior had set off down the Rio Perené to scout the territory in 1891 on behalf of the Peruvian Development Corporation, using his botanical knowledge to sniff out investment opportunities. But if you were worried that Sinclair might be about to cash in his psychogeographical chips in favour of some more tasteful, mainstream travel writing, you can stand at ease: the result is as packed as ever with his conjurations about marginality and loss, the demonic face of power and the ways in which people are bent—or bend themselves—around it. He mobilises his characteristic machine of double takes and doppelgängers, symmetry, entanglement and recursion, false mirrors, secret compartments, masks, synchronicity and objective chance. And there is no slackening of his power as a writer either. Who else could have made such a tasty meal of this description of dinner in a native village?
Lucho… went early to market and chose an adventurous range of prehistoric mud creatures, all bone and spine, along with addressing of open-mouthed piranhas showing of a rictus of needle teeth. The fish shimmered on a rusty grille. They made good smoke, keeping villagers, still occupied at a distance, informed about the progress of the meal.
Entitled diners, emerging from nowhere, took their places at a table set up in the shack. They received, with nods of appreciation, deep bowls of thin salty broth in which floated the skeletons of the ancient fish, revived by a potent brew of herbs and vegetables, and on the point of returning to life. After the soup had been gargled and gulped, with companionable lip-licking relish, social dialogue can begin. A spilling platter of guinea pig in peanut sauce was reserved for Lucho’s driver, a man from another place. With a status, through his role in our guides entourage, closer to that of a time person. The broiled guinea pig winks in collusion on his couch of sticky rice.
That the Peruvian Development Corporation was based in the City of London indicates a key point of continuity. Sinclair may have broken physically out of the magic circle that bound him to the M25, wandering about it like some bonsai Odysseus, but set free of it in Peru, he deftly connects the history of the older Sinclair’s expedition back to the workings of the City, in the form of the Corporation. London citizen Joseph Conrad is invoked, and his depiction of colonial psychology laid over events, as is the American poet Charles Olson (whose poem, The Gold Machine, lends its title), Henry James, Céline, Rimbaud, and host of others all long at home in Sinclair’s other books.
Farne wants to heal the tear in the moral fabric of things her ancestor had prised open, even if only by a fraction
Alongside Sinclair on the expedition was the filmmaker Grant Gee, Sinclair’s daughter, Farne (who has created a series of podcasts documenting the expedition), and a shadowy character, The Advocate (like Satan?), contributing from afar, alternately prodding Sinclair on or urging caution, through letters and emails. They are led by the local guide, Lucho (“a short powerful man of the mountains… the brujo of adventure tourism”), who is a vocal and energetic enthusiast for the potential of culture-tourism to transform the lives of local people for the better. Farne is driven by a mission to provide closure, bringing with her hitherto unknown documents—contracts between the Peruvian Development Corporation and various Peruvian agencies, including the government—that helped underpin the brutal exploitation of the land and its native people alike, hoping thereby to provide relief of sorts to the people her ancestor was instrumental in undoing, by showing them how it was done. In this way, Farne wants to heal the tear in the moral fabric of things her ancestor had prised open, even if only by a fraction.
As a result of Arthur’s efforts, investment in the development of coffee plantations and the infrastructure to support them went ahead, and the Ashininka were ploughed under. As a people, they were reduced to debt peonage—slavery—working on the corporate coffee plantations or building the infrastructure to support them, or else they were forced deeper into the cloud forest by the bow wave of approaching capital. One way or the other, they were preyed upon by adventurers, speculators, con-men, child-snatching missionaries and other assorted opportunists. Their existence as a culture—their beliefs and way of life—was ruined, even though they as a people continue to exist, for the benefit of the tourist trade, shrouded in a haze of legend.
The irony that this son of the Highland Clearances ends up laying the grounds for visiting the same process of state-sanctioned despoilation on Peru, is not only not lost on Sinclair, but is exactly the type of correspondence, the elaboration of which is at the heart of his work. He traces such echoes and symmetries until they call back and forth to one another. Sinclair and his fellow expeditionaries are pictured as aiming somehow to mitigate the impact of colonialism by flushing it out into the light. At the same time, Sinclair is aware that the expedition involves its own modes of exploitation of the Ashaninka, and extends the injuries inflicted by his ancestor as much as it exposes them (“We come as thieves, disguised with gifts”). It is cultural exploitation in a different register, but it is exploitation all the same, albeit not on the scale of the recent current large-scale influx of Ayahuasca tourists.
The Image Vine: Anywhere Leads Everywhere
For all of the dead ends and tribulations of the journey downriver, the route is straightforward compared to the convolutions of Sinclair’s telling. He speaks of Burroughs’ idea of the ‘image vine’:
Over the coming decades he defines his theory of the image vine: how one image placed next to any other in a twisted DNA chain, snapshots taped to the peeling wall of the latest flop, proposes a narrative. Anywhere leads to everywhere. Like the word, the image is a virus.
Sinclair’s prose weaves an image vine every bit as dense as the vines of the forests he passes through. It is fractal in the way it draws on layers of history, geography and the poetic imagination to propose a concrete image of the derangement of things. Facts (“the projectiles of original scholarship”) are duly arraigned and interrogated. Conrad’s experience as a pilot, and his subsequent novels; Ginsberg and Burroughs trekking across Peru, Panama, Ecuador and Chile in pursuit of Yage, and Burrough’s meditations on the cynicism of the corporate exploitation of the indigenous science (The Yage Letters); the ‘meteor that was Rimbaud’, pouring himself through the escape hatch to live as a guide and gun runner in Yemen and Abyssinia: all of this is set to work building a hall of mirrors in which history is trapped. This hall of mirrors, while it is a shadowplay created by Sinclair, is not a fiction, but evokes the realities of colonialism and personal folly alike. His images, plucked from across the vast range of his reading and his experience, serve to capture an actuality: if “anywhere leads to everywhere”, then everywhere leads back here. He puts fiction to work in the pursuit of truth.
The story of The Gold Machine is largely the story of people harnessed to empire. But, as Sinclair commented in his talk to the Blake Society, while he projects the destructive side of his ancestor’s project, and of colonialism in general, he is alive to other, more tender aspects: “the vision side of it was equally strong. I wouldn’t deny that.” The course of history, for all its necessity, is mediated by people who are not one-sided; it is built of dreams as much as nightmares. But, while history is propelled toward the future in pursuit of such dreams, it is experienced and remembered as a chain of catastrophes.
The Weary Traveller Revived
In his talk about the influence of The Mental Traveller on his work, Sinclair addressed other Blake poems that have stirred him: The Sick Rose, and Ah! Sun-flower, in particular. It was hard not to wonder whether he worried that perhaps he too was wearying, sharing the anticipation of the sun-flower, who “countest the steps of the Sun / Seeking after that sweet golden clime / Where the traveller’s journey is done.”
Similarly, while ‘the Gold Machine’ figures in his book largely as an projected and imaginary engine of wealth, drawing the colonial traveller on into the madness of ‘the heart of darkness’, Sinclair’s discussion of Charles Olson leads one to suspect he may even be anxious about his own poetic stamina. He quotes Tom Clarke on the later Olson: “the alchemy of creation was escaping him… Most of all he feared the loss of his essential powers, the precious ‘Gold making machine ‘in which his poetry was fused.” If that is the case, on the present evidence, he hasn’t much to worry about.
From the River to the Sea
Soft Morning City! Lsp! I Am Leafy Speafing
When I heard that Sinclair would talk about his work in relation to The Mental Traveller, I assumed he would address the question that vexes Blake scholars as to whether the poem expresses a cyclical view of history (like the Vedic idea of the four-billion-year cosmic cycle of the kalpa, the day of Brahma, and the terrestrial cycles of the divya yugas within that, from which Nietzsche derived his law of eternal return). He did not, which is a shame, because I sense an affinity between Blake’s view of mythic history and Sinclair’s story-telling structures.
Blake certainly had something like this in mind. He begins the poem with “the boy born in joy”, who is then nailed down upon the rock by “a Woman Old”. The boy grows until “he becomes a bleeding youth / And she becomes a Virgin bright”. The boy then rapes the woman, as he “rends up his manacles / And binds her down for his delight.” He then starts to age, becoming an “aged Shadow”, and “soon he fades”. But then, “A little Female Babe does spring”, who is “all of solid fire”. The female grows, and selects a husband. But the husband then grows younger, while wife ages, “Til he becomes a wayward Babe / And she a weeping Woman Old.” We are back at the start of the cycle; Blake says in the final lines that “She nails him down upon the Rock / And all is done as I have told.”3—a ricorso almost as bold as that of Anna Livia Plurabelle at the end of Finnegans Wake.
The Mental Traveller is generally understood to constitute a retelling of the ‘Orc cycle’, in which Orc is born as the spirit of freedom, is bound and tortured, but breaks free, only to succumb again as he transforms into Urizen, the dismal ‘Nobodaddy’ of authority, censure and blame:
The poem… describes a cycle, and while the cycle is not exclusively the cycle of history, the latter is the central form of it. Here the infant Orc begins as a rock-bound Prometheus in subjection to an old woman. At puberty, he tears loose from the rock and copulates with the old woman, who grows younger as he grows older, and becomes his wife or emanation. As Orc declines, his imaginative achievements are completed into a single form or ‘female Babe’… Here the male principle tends to become younger and the female more aggressive and maternal. Orc, now Urizen, dies a seed’s death as the world becomes a ‘dark desert all around ‘, and eventually re-enters the world of generation as a reborn Orc.
Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake4
However, while Frye himself never stooped so low, such a reading potentially confuses the husk of Blake’s system for its marrow, which then becomes a wretched tale of how the fire of insurrection inevitably sinks into the sea of reaction. This is the view of the bore who tells you that ‘everyone eventually sells out’, and there’s nothing to be done about it. But, in Blake’s vision, the cycles are not strung out on a line like the beads of a necklace, rather they are knotted as thick as Amazonian vines, stacked one inside the other like Russian dolls, and woven together like the threads of a ship’s hawser: in any case, they are not examples of the sort of iron necessity favoured by Urizen..
Upstream by Recirculation
James Joyce imbibed Blake alongside his reading of Giambatista Vico, who had his own idea of the ‘ricorso’, or return of history. He disagreed with Vico’s idea that such cycles were markers in history, using them instead as a framework around which to wrap his tale (speaking of Vico, he told Padraic Colum, “I use his cycles like a trellis”), while also knitting the tale itself out of endless variations on different aspects of the cycle. In Joyce, the same elements reappear in the story in different registers (Ulysses sailing around the coast of the Mediterranean, Leopold Bloom wandering the streets of Dublin), multiplied endlessly. The same could be said of Blake’s use of the Orc cycle. What Joyce finds in Blake, and puts to work in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, is the same poly-vocality, recursion and repetition that structures Blake’s prophecies.
The result, in both cases, is to introduce a new kind of authorial tact. The reader never becomes the beneficiary of some moral or political sermon, but instead is drawn in toward sharing the vision that inspired the author. The intent is anarchistic, to allow the reader to find their own way in rather than being led by the nose, which never works anyway, as it requires nothing from the reader beyond being impressionable.
My point, naturally, is that all this is also true of Sinclair’s writing. He plumbs the depth of places in order to flush out their ghosts and echoes, to show them both as they are bound up in the moment, and yet also timeless, archetypal. As with Joyce, he looks beyond the events themselves to see the underlying archetypes, of which events are only the shadows. In The Gold Machine, it is heartening to see him still paddling his canoe in these waters, still making his way upstream, toward the source—the one, true Gold Machine of the imagination, and divine vision,
Iain Sinclair: Blake’s Mental Traveller and The Gold Machine
Talk given to The Blake Society, 15th Sep 2021.
[Responding to the chair’s introduction] Thank you for your very generous and inspiring introduction. I almost feel I should go back and read some of these books! It was intriguing to hear them positioned because that’s what I’d like to do now. You mentioned The Mental Traveller, which hit me as a fourteen or fifteen-year-old, and in a way that I didn’t understand then, but I responded to. I think this is the most significant thing to do with poetry: you do not need to understand, but you need to experience it. And through that experience, eventually, hopefully, you will understand in a new way, because all of your life flows into these markers that you pick up at an early stage and of the many Blake poems that were around this particular one, misunderstood but inspiring, set up everything that I was going to do.
This is from the Pickering Manuscript.
The Mental Traveller
I travelled through a Land of Men
a land of Men & Women too
And heard & saw such dreadful things
As cold earth wanderers never knew
What I discovered from that, and what became the map of everything that I would do subsequently, is contained in three elements: shape, movement, and place. These are the elements of the poetry that meant most to me. Shape is interesting. I don’t mean that in the sense of typographical design—this was a handwritten poem. Blake was a marvellous shaper onto the page. The margins of his pages are alive with images and illustrations, so that often the script is hard to see. But what I felt with this poem when I looked at it was that it was a kind of column that was pinched and squeezed as if by some growing vine that wrapped itself around it, which later would reveal itself to be a DNA spiral.
My travels were held back by the gravity of London to its fringes
It’s the most mysterious poem, and a cyclic poem. The element that gets me first in terms of its shape is this idea that Blake himself had of opening yourself up to a kind of genetic possession, in the way that he did with Milton. When he was at Felpham he sees the star of Milton’s laser talent piercing his heel, allowing him to then engage with and even remake Milton’s great Paradise poem. I’m not saying that anything that I did was even remotely the same level, but it was a sense of just opening up a series of genetic exchanges with the poem, letting the poem begin to wrap like a vine and squeeze on my spine and become part of the system that was a single man, but would become also part of a system of that man, trying to understand and move through a city.
The poem had all of those qualities, the ostensible explanation of the poem, which is quite convincingly argued by Foster Damon, is that it’s a sort of allegory of liberty and revolution, and that they have a shifting engagement with each other, between male and female elements. And all of that stands up pretty well, but it doesn’t, to me, get to the ultimate fire sources of the poem, which seemed to be a huge sexual, political intertwining, a sort of Jungian argument that is haunting in all kinds of ways. Blake goes on;
For there the Babe is born in joy
This could be a version of Orc, the revolutionary animus of the city.
Just as we Reap in joy the fruit.
Which we in bitter tears did sow
But when we go on from that into the next section, this is when I began to see glimmerings of some kind of future illumination.
He’s given to a Woman Old
Who nails him down upon a rock
Catches his shrieks in Cups of gold
The gold is a glint. It’s a vein that’s running through the poem.
Her fingers number every nerve
just as a Miser counts his gold
I think there is an underlying metaphor of alchemy within this. Through cyclic repetition, through a process that will emerge in a sense, taking you on the Homeric journey to complete and to come back to where you were at the beginning, but to have had all of your molecules rearranged, your intelligence fired, your veins throbbing. You are a new entity by the time you come to the end of it.
And the idea of the journey, the movement, was very important to me. It is the very first element of being a traveller. That sight that’s offered up at the beginning of the poem. It was, I saw, a family tradition that was haunting me. And I hadn’t been able to deal with it. The only family records I had on my father’s side of the family was of a great-grandfather who had grown up in the Highlands, inland from Aberdeen, in a very impoverished village. His family were in a bad place after the Jacobite uprising, as a result of the land enclosures, and he was forced to leave school at the age of ten and, as he put it, he commenced his education, becoming a world traveller. Because a sort of condition of Scottishness was to be at home everywhere except in Scotland.
In 1856 my great-grandfather left England on a four-and-a-half month journey by sea to get to Ceylon, as it was then known, where he becomes something of an expert on planting and growing and soil conditions. And he works there until he’s forty and then thinks he has enough put aside to return to Scotland to become a writer. And so this germ of having to write was with me. And the second germ, of having to travel and roam endlessly, was completely scaled down. I was never a world traveller in the way that my great-grandfather was, or even my grandfather, who, as a young man, was a ship’s doctor. My travels were held back by the gravity of London to its fringes, but nevertheless, in a sort of comic way, hacking down the A13 became like pushing down the Amazon in this book I was reading. And at the back of it all again, is this underlying image that something there in The Mental Traveller is a kind of map of how to chart my own inspirations and the way I should work.
It was the Rosicrucian rose. It was the rose of the Enlightenment that was being challenged and picked at
Earlier on, before this particular poem set everything up for me, the only Blake I knew were lines from Songs of Innocence and Experience. Obviously The Tyger‘s idea of ‘fearful symmetry’ fits nicely with this idea of shape, which I see essential to all of this. And also movement, inasmuch as Blake’s tiger felt like a Douanier Rousseau tiger. It felt, in Blake’s drawing, as if it was something that would emerge from the plant house in Kew Gardens and move on a trajectory into the industrialised London of Lambeth, and into the river. So there is always the sense of movement. So there was The Tyger and, most haunting, was The Sick Rose, which I associated very closely with the poet who was geographically closest to me and who I read most intensely at that time, who was Dylan Thomas:
The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.
That to me was very reminiscent of, and echoing on and drawing on, Blake’s The Sick Rose:
O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
Those two, not quite nursery songs, but songs, infiltrated me. And they were there on a different level, in a different place, to The Mental Traveller, but they kept coming back. They were almost a rhythm of walking. “Oh Rose thou art sick“: every time I felt ill, that came into my head. It was the Rosicrucian rose. It was the rose of the Enlightenment that was being challenged and picked at, as well as being a prophecy of the sense of ecological doom that was haunting us already.
The third poem of that group that was in my head early on was Ah! Sun-flower. This really opened the gate. I love the way that Blake’s title is ‘Ah’, with an exclamation, and ‘sun-flower’ with a hyphen. It’s a sun flower, a flower of the sun.
It’s much more than it appears to be:
Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the travellers journey is done.
“Sun-flower, weary of time / who countest of the steps of the sun”. All of that helped make the situation ripe when in 1967 – I’ve mentioned this many times, but it’s, it’s important to me and to what I am trying to say now – there was the presence of Allen Ginsburg, who was a great Blakean, in London for the congress of the Dialectics of Liberation, and the chance I had to make my first documentary film, engaging with him, and, most importantly, spending a morning sitting on top of Primrose Hill with this poet who was wearing this bright red silk shirt that had been hand-painted by Paul McCartney, and him feeling that this was a moment of energies opening up in England. And not only that, but sitting on the top of the hill, there was this wonderful panorama of the city.
We sat there and he remembered Henry Crabb Robinson saying he’d seen Blake as a spiritual sun on top of Primrose Hill, and Harry Fainlight, the poet, came along and joined him at that moment. And Ginsburg was very taken with the new structure of the Post Office Tower, which he called a sort of ‘thorned tower’. And the shape of that tower is a bit like the shape of The Mental Traveller. He didn’t realise, I think—and I didn’t mention it—that Rimbaud and Verlaine had shared a room right at the foot of where the Post Office Tower is now. But I think he saw it as a kind of a combination of a radio energy – almost anticipating the world of the internet, the ultimate series of interconnections – and at the same time as a kind of phallic monument, maybe a phallic monument to Rimbaud and the image of that thorned tower, as he described it, moved across into one of his most Blakean poems, which was Wales Visitation, when in the middle of our filming, he took himself off to Llanthony Abbey in Wales, which I will come to write about sometime later, and went to the top of the hill and had an ecstatic LSD vision, in which he describes this floating, mystic, lamb-y landscape in Blakean terms.
But what was most important to him was his vision when he lived alone in East Harlem before this, and he heard the voice of William Blake reciting the poem, Ah! Sun-flower, which led him into a period of intense reading of Blake and, intriguingly, engaging with English poets, some of whom were in New York, where he met the poet, George Barker, and later in Paris he met Don Moraes. Both of these had first been published by David Archer, a great patron of poets, who ran Parton Press and the Parton bookshop. He also published David Gascoyne and Sydney Graham. Ginsburg and Corso were invited to England to go to Oxford, to read, by Don Moraes. And they meet in London when they are penniless on the street. They managed to find out where David Archer is, and he’s not so well off himself at that time, but he raises some money for them.
he saw it as a kind of a combination of a radio energy… and at the same time as a kind of phallic monument
So there’s that kind of connection, a mysterious series of interconnections between these poets, both American and English. Ginsberg told me he was very engaged by the way that the poet George Barker had written in Calimiterror, his poem in the 1930s, about Blake, and about a vision of Blake on the Thames, at Sonning, near Reading. Barker was there with his brother Kit, who was a painter. And when I researched it, I found that what they’d been reading, intensely, together was The Mental Traveller. So I managed to find myself a copy of Calimiterror, which is a nice first edition—I was a book dealer, so these things are possible – and I came to read it on the instructions of Allen Ginsburg. And this is an English poem, by somebody who’s interested in traditional ideas of shape and structure, but is also being published by TS Eliot, and is engaged with modernism, and who has this very authentic vision of William Blake.
I saw the figure of William Blake bright and huge
Hung over the Thames at Sonning. I had not had this.
Familiar with the spatial mathematic,
Acknowledging the element of matter,
I was acquainted with the make of things,
But not this. I had not acknowledged this.
I had not encountered prototype.
I saw William Blake large and bright like ambition,
Absolute, glittering, actual and gold.
I saw he had worlds and worlds in his abdomen,
And his bosom innumerably enpeopled with all birds.
I saw his soul like a cinema in each of his eyes,
And Swedenborg labouring like a dream in his stomach.
I remember the myrtle sprouting from his hand
And saw myself the minor bird on the bough.
I recognized the cosmology of the objects,
The contributing and constituting things,
Which contemplated too close make a chaos,
The glorious plethora, the paradise mass, the chaos of
Glory, in which the idiot wanders collecting.
I recognized the cosmology of chaos,
Observing that the condition rendering
Chaos cosmos is the external fact.
“I recognised the cosmology of chaos”. I mean, this, this was ringing a lot of future bells for me. When the opportunity came up from Picador books to do an anthology, and I suggested an anthology of significant poets of the contemporary world, but each of these poets, or some of the poets, would also be allowed to make the connection to the lineage of poets from previous generations who had meant most to them, and the book was called Conductors of Chaos. And I see that as a significant element echoing in George Barker. And more than that, this line, “I saw William Blake, large and bright like ambition / Absolute glittering, actual and gold” – ‘absolute’, and ‘gold’, and ‘glittering. There it is again, picking up on me. It seems I couldn’t avoid that. And this was part of some sort of secret coding, a shape that I was unpacking through movement.
Place was always easy. I found very early on that to write intensely about place, the very piece of ground on which you found yourself, was going to lead to movement, was going to lead to shape. Shape was the most difficult for me to achieve. Place was relatively straightforward. I would always find myself moving on lines of energy, ley lines, whatever you want to call them, towards particular places, such as the set up of the Hawksmoor churches around Limehouse, Whitechapel, and on the Highway, with all of that making a pattern, a shape. And so, that part of it was fine. And the discovery of how these poets had dealt with this before was all beginning to come together.
It’s that marriage of genders, the switching of ages and genders that are part of this DNA spiral, it cycles around The Mental Traveller
As well as George Barker, there is his great friend of the same period, David Gascoyne, who was most noticeable for discovering so much about French literature, living in Paris, helping to introduce surrealism and surrealist thought to England, having the most significant, catastrophic breakdowns and coming through to vision again. I was lucky enough to know David Gascoyne in his latter years, after doing a reading with him after he had come out of the hospital on the isle of Wight, doing a reading together in Essex, in Colchester, at the university, and getting to know him, and to pick up somewhat on his sense of London as an animal identity, as an organic entity, which was the vision of Ginsburg on top of Primrose Hill – that this whole city we were watching, this pulsing city, was literally alive. The grass was alive. The creatures in the grass were alive. The buildings were alive. The whole system of energy was there, initiating the kind of visions that George Barker had had on the Thames. And Blake was really the engine behind so much of that. But Gascoyne, when I began to look at what he was doing in this same period, by 1969 he was moving toward a crisis, a sort of psychotic crisis, both within his life and within his writing. He was reading so intensely in the most abstruse sources. Robert Fraser, in his biography of David Gascoyne, describes how he contemplates a Gnostic interpretation of Genesis, a neo-Blakean scenario, the grand result in tune with mystical and sexual insights of our chemical science would be a golden wedding. The renewed marriage of genders would, he thought, lead to a new age, and he thought it was 1969.
It’s that marriage of genders, the switching of ages and genders that are part of this DNA spiral, it cycles around The Mental Traveller. “I have at last fulfilled the purpose of the surrealist movement,” he said to Penrose, “and have achieved super realities through understanding the full meaning of Blake’s vision of the marriage of heaven and hell, the upper macrocosm and the lower microcosm.” He announced his mission to London. He was suffering a crisis, a breakdown. He felt that he had to tell his vision to various poets, such as Kathleen Raine, who was sympathetic but was not there in London. He decides that, as he knows that Mary Wilson, the Prime Minister’s wife, was a verse writer, maybe she can understand what he wants to do. He intends to go to Downing Street but he ends up outside Buckingham Palace. He gets arrested. He’s taken to Horton Hospital in Epsom.
And there again, this becomes part of the shape of my own journey because, when I did a walk around the M25 motorway, sometime around the turn of the millennium, we visited this hospital where Gascoyne had been held in 1969. And of course, this sense of the supposed madness of the inner city was being pushed out all the time to the margins, to the edge of the motorways. And Horton Hospital had actually disappeared. The streets around it at that time were full of patients who had been left as ‘care in the community’, just wandering, looking for the places where they lived for so long. The old graveyard of the people who had died there was being dug up and turned into a new estate.
And so the sense of a lineage going back in London a long way, even to Gascoyne, was being obliterated. And I began to think, there is a map, there is a pattern, if I can get to it. And the only way I was reaching for it was that, every time there was a new cycle in my own work, in which I could feel like a very old man, being caught up with the energies in being put in a golden cup and drinking and finding yourself new with a new project, Blake seem to be on hand somewhere, from the very earliest poems around Lud Heat and Suicide Bridge. It was almost like the Ginsburg acoustic voice, it was always there, saying “more, more… this is not, you haven’t reached the point of understanding what you’re beginning to experience. You don’t understand. Find the shape, find the movement.”
And so the movement became the circling of the M25, which was a very good metaphor, and it linked up with other things, other projects, one of which was to do with place as a fixed value, particularly Abney Park, the cemetery in Stoke Newington, which had never quite decided whether it would be a garden or a burial ground. I went then repeatedly. I went there first when I was an art student at the Courtauld Institute. I was thinking, this is all very pleasant, but, you know, I have a family. I can’t afford to do this. I’m going to have to stop doing this and get back to work. And I walked up to Abney Park to think about all this and wandered around, and it was the perfect place for it.
And it became a destination. So when I started a book called Lights Out for the Territory, which was a new way of thinking about how to write about London, that journey to Abney Park was the start. And I decided that I had to describe this V-shape. I’m not quite sure why, but I decided I’d walk to Abney Park and then down to Greenwich University, where there was an exhibition I was supposed to see, and then up to Chingford, on the other side. And I would write down in a notebook all of the graffiti, all of the secret writings of the streets that were there in the course of this journey. So there would be a book of the city, but it would declare itself, I would be more of an editor than a writer.
feel the voices there are very much engaging with this Blakean sense of the past and present all interweaving in a wonderful way
And that curiously linked up later with The Gold Machine, which was the conclusion of all of these things for me, because the title, The Gold Machine comes from a poem by Charles Olson, the American poet, the Black Mountain poet, who wrote this long series of poems called the Maximus Poems, that begin very much with the specifics of place, of Gloucester, Massachusetts, of the details of the foundation of that city and how the city faced out onto the great depths of the Atlantic and the underwater mountains and continents that were lost, and also faced West, to the fact of America, and Olson later came through into a more lyric and cosmological mode at the end of the poem, the poem sloughs off the weight of documentation and moves into a Homeric register. And the poem The Gold Machine (which I heard him read here in London in 1967: I didn’t know it at the time, but he had been staying in the same house as Ginsburg, near Regents Park) begins.
I am the Gold Machine, and now I have trenched out, smeared, occupied.
with my elongated lens, the ugliest passage of all the V.
So the V was there. I was gradually uncovering this alphabet. Abney Park cemetery was planted as an alphabet in that sort of Robert Graves, White Goddess way, in that the trees that went around the perimeter of the burial ground were in alphabetical order. That’s very strange and interesting as a conceit. But I was going back there to find the grave of Edward Calvert. Calvert, the engraver, was one of the Ancients, a friend of Samuel Palmer, and a disciple of William Blake. He was very much taken with Blake’s engravings from Virgil, and doing his own versions, slightly more elegant, slightly more sophisticated – as he thought – from the raw energy of Blake’s versions. So I wanted to establish some kind of contact with Calvert, and it proved really very difficult to locate his grave, which I did do ultimately.
And then I started to read a little about Calvert. I found this wonderful story of Calvert and his wife going down to Shoreham to stay with Palmer and the community there, and explore the Golden Valley. He travels down with William Blake. And when they get there, because Calvert is married, he’s given the best room to sleep in. And Blake is rather shoved out and he’s sitting in the waterhouse, smoking a pipe with Palmer’s father, while Samuel Palmer has taken the coach back to London. And Blake says, “I see Palmer coming towards us, walking up the road,” and they say, “no, no, you can’t see that he’s gone to London.” And a few moments later, Palmer duly walks through the door, because the coach has lost a wheel or had an accident, and it’s not going to go.
there’s a mysterious series of interconnections between these poets
And this bizarre vision is told by Calvert, who was intrigued by the presence of Blake to a great extent. So much so, perhaps, that one of his own daughters who died was buried in Bunhill Fields, right next to where William Blake is buried, whereas he himself was up in Abney Park. This became the subject of a sequence I’m working on at the moment. I feel the voices there are very much engaging with this Blakean sense of the past and present all interweaving in a wonderful way.
And so those were the elements that were there when I launched off to Peru with my daughter. It didn’t strike me immediately, but as we went on, I realised this was not my journey, this was a journey between three systems of time. First of all, we had my Scottish great-grandfather, who had seen this landscape, which had not been explored at all by the Hispanic Peruvians – the people from Lima never went there. This is really backcountry, on the banks of the Perené. The people are the Ashaninka, the indigenous people. My great grandfather was among the first travellers to come and survey this ground. I didn’t understand it at when I began to look into the backstory—it was my daughter, Farne, who started to do some serious research, and discovered that this was on contract to the Peruvian Corporation of London, who were in Leadenhall Street, and who had been given a vast tranche of land when the Peruvian government reneged on their debts after the war in the Pacific, with Chile, and they handed over the railroads and the silver mines and this massive amount of land, which they didn’t really want, they didn’t know what to do with it, and said, can you do something with it?
And these planters were sent out to see whether this land was suitable for growing coffee. And so the ecstatic sense of the richness of the ground, which my great-grandfather portrayed as if it was the garden of Eden discovered—the incredible fertility, the variety of flowers and plants and fruits. The possibilities were overwhelming. But the negative side of it was that he felt, in a sort of Calvinist Scottish way, that all this must be put to good use, that the indigenous people were innocents but they had not made any great use of this so they should be invited to disappear further into the forest or else to come into modernity by working on a coffee plantation, which was horrendously wrong, obviously. But the vision side of it was equally strong. I wouldn’t deny that. So you have his vision of this being an Edenic place.
At the back of it, there was also a sense that he’d failed when his crops had been wiped out in Ceylon. The coffee harvest disappeared and he’d been financially ruined. He took himself to Tasmania at the time of the gold fever. So there was a sense of scratching for gold as a way out of the difficulty, which didn’t work at all, and then returning to the garden. So that was his take. Then my daughter’s take was like that of the younger woman in The Mental Traveller, filled with this energy and dynamism to get through to what had happened in the colonial period and make some kind of restitution by bringing back information about what happened to the Ashaninka people, who didn’t know, and showing them copies of the contracts, which the government had made with the Peruvian Corporation, and the contracts they had made with the missionaries, the Seventh Day Adventists, who were allowed to come into this land on the understanding that they would stop the native people drinking masato and taking ayahuasca, and so on.
And so there was her energy on one side, the great-grandfather on the other, and myself with this poeticised conceit of identifying the journey and the place and weaving the three elements together. And I realised that this was completely a version of The Mental Traveller. It was my own Mental Traveller at the end of a whole series of other engagements and connections with Blake along the way, and a remembrance of George Barker’s vision of Blake on the Thames, upstream from London, and the Conradian visions in London of travelling out to a sort of darkness, and the balance between the two, the way that Barker sees a golden, angelic form, and he says that Blake was not writing about angels, he was an angel.
All of this began to make some kind of sense to me when I interviewed an old lady, Bertha, who was part of the riverside community along the Rio Perené. She was initially reluctant to talk to us, but because there was a younger Ashaninka woman with us, and her daughter – the three generations, the old lady, the young child, and a woman of middle age, together – the older woman felt she could talk. And I realised, even as she talked, that this was a perfect demonstration of the equation, the shape, of The Mental Traveller. You could see in this flickering firelight – it was dark by the time we got there – she came out of her corrugated hut and she had a few twigs that suddenly created this enormous amount of smoke. And she was telling us essentially that in her youth, they had worshipped the fire and stone, and these gods had been set aside by the Adventist missionaries, and a new messianic, white God had been imposed on them, but the energies of these older gods were there. And this too was Blakean. And a most extraordinary thing started to happen: even though the fire itself was not making much smoke, it seemed that smoke was beginning to come out of her nostrils. And the young child fell asleep in the smoke, and the middle woman began to chant and sing.
I’ll finish by just reading this short passage, which is the mental traveller amazingly entering the shamanic world of the upper Amazon. This is a little piece of The Gold Machine. And I should say now that this is particularly poignant because, in the COVID epidemic, the old lady died. The village was cut off. The police sealed the area off. And several of the older people we’ve talked to died, including an old man who had actually worked on the coffee plantation in his youth.
“In the smoke thickening dusk, among the women, we listened to how Bertha talked to Velisa, her soft voice whispering into the heart of the fire. The old lady is seeking, in the flickering shadows, the recitation that is part of her identity.
It was awkward to intrude into the choral exchanges of the two women, but I muttered my request to my daughter, Farne, and she asked Velisa. And Velisa asked Bertha. We had heard about the gods of fire and stone, before the coming of the Seventh-day Adventists who now dominated the settlement at Mariscal Cáceres. We heard about pilgrimages to the Salt Mountain and pilgrimages to the cave where the bones of the pretender, Juan Santos Atahualpa (also known as a Apinka), were laid. Would Bertha now tell us more about this man and her own experiences of visiting the sacred site?
Bertha said that her grandmother had seen Apinka when he was carried to a cave near Kishitariki, which is now known as Mariscal Cáceres.
‘He was buried there, together with a mass of gold, which looked like bars of soap.’
The Ashaninka laid their champion on a bed of gold. They brought more and more bars until the cave was half-filled. Over the gold they put the skin of a cow and then the body of Atahualpa. Bertha’s grandmother showed her where the cave was to be found, but now the old lady does not remember. When the coffee plantation was made, only the owners understood where the cave was hidden.
‘We do not know if the gold is still in the cave, or if it has been taken by those who were looking for it,’ Bertha said.
‘By others who came later?’
‘It is possible’
‘Wherever the smoke rises, that is where Marinkama is to be found. It is the smoke of the Iron House, where machetes and cooking pots were forged. So it was until the old way was lost. When outsiders came, they took away the gold. It disappeared. We don’t know where Apinka’s gold is. This was what we believed until outsiders and whites came. They ended it all. My grandmother told me about it. She lived in Apinka’s presence when she was a child. She was in his service… Here it ends. I am more than 80 years old. My birthday is on the twenty-fourth of August. I have six children, three girls and three boys.’
So there we were, with a realisation of where the movement had carried us, to a place that gave a shape, which was the shape of Blake’s poems, which was a model for everything that followed.
Iain Sinclair, Talk to The Blake Society
Resources and References
George Barker, Calamiterror (1937), London: Faber & Faber.
William Blake, ‘The Mental Traveller’, ‘The Sick Rose’, ‘Ah! Sun-flower’, in David Erdman (ed), The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (1965), New York: Random House, 1988, pp 483-486, 23, 25. References to the Erdman book in this essay are given as ‘E’ followed by the page number.
Robert Fraser, Night Thoughts: The Surreal Life of the Poet David Gascoyne (2012), Oxford: OUP.
Allen Ginsberg, ‘Wales Visitation’, in Collected Poems 1947-1997, New York: HarperCollins, 2006, pp488-490.
Allen Ginsberg, comments and observations on Blake.
Farne Sinclair, In Tropical Lands: Conversations with Iain Sinclair about The Gold Machine, Apple podcast.
Iain Sinclair, The Gold Machine: In the Tracks of the Mule Dancers (2021), London: Oneworld Publications.
Iain SInclair, The Mental Traveller and The Gold Machine, The Blake Society, meeting 15th Sep 2021.
Dylan Thomas, ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’ (1934), from The Poems of Dylan Thomas, New York: New Directions Publishing.
- Izak Bouwer and Paul McNally, ‘The Mental Traveller’ and Man’s Eternal Journey, in Blake, An Illustrated Quarterly, Vol. 12, Issue 3, Winter 1978-79, pp184-92.
- Blake, Jerusalem 10:17-21. E153.
- William Blake, ‘The Mental Traveller’, in David Erdman (ed), The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (1965), New York: Random House, 1988, pp 483-486.
- Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (1947), Princeton University Press, 1990, p229.