Complete text for Blake's The Mental Traveller.
As we continue to read through the poem we see the balance of power shifting.
"She binds iron thorns around his head,
And pierces both his hands and feet,
And cuts his heart out of his side
To make it feel both cold & heat."
The image Blake creates is not limited to the situation he directly describes. He insists that we think of Jesus, Albion, Orc and Prometheus as well. In Jesus we see the crucifixion, and the lamb which is sacrificed to the demanding God. In Orc we see spirit of revolution which is ready to explode into conflagration. In Prometheus we see the thief of fire who suffered for his gift to humanity.
Blake uses symbols and images to suggest more than he says in words. The words suggest crucifixion to some. The word 'binds' suggests to me the situation when Los and Enitharmon bound Orc to the rock because of Los' jealousy. It is an easy jump from Orc to Prometheus and from there to the broader story of Prometheus stealing fire, being bound to a rock, suffering from heat and cold, having his liver eaten by the eagle, and being associated with Pandora.
It is with great difficulty that the old woman who is past her time of strength and influence can subdue the vigorous boy. In her weakness she asserts all the powers she has acquired through the ages.
For a time the energies that the boy represents can be suppressed through forceful measures. As long as her strength endures, the old woman keeps each of his abilities under her control.
"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,"
Recently I was reading about the Mental Traveller in Raine's Blake and Antiquity. She includes it in a section called The Myth of the Great Year. She sees an alternation between the spirit and the material as an age is born and matures and dies.
What I picked up from Raine focused on the image of spiritual development and material development as being opposed movements, each of which follows the same path as the human body from birth and infancy through maturity to aging and death. However the culture that is old in spirit is young in material and visa versa. Each aspect nourishes the other and is nourished by the other, but they compete for resources and power and for 'air time'.
In these four lines of the poem, the aging civilization (conservative and materialistic) had depleted her own sources of energy. The babe is potential energy which she aims to tap into in order to replenish her own diminished supply of ideas and initiatives. Spiritual life in its infant stage may make a lot of noise and be disturbing in its exuberance. The old culture may be able to apply this to her own ends. (She may even be able to use it to start wars, or to get the other party elected.)
The infusion of energy enhances the old organization, but it diminishes the freshness and vitality of the new.
"Till he becomes a bleeding youth
And she becomes a virgin bright;
Then he rends up his manacles
And pins her down for his delight."
The bleeding could be the red of torture, of passion, of fire, of wine, of war, or of sacrifice.
To continue the civilization metaphor a point has been reached where the old and young each have something to give and something to receive. When a balance is reached the male, spiritual interest asserts itself and becomes dominant. This exchange of positions is no healthier than the previous one, because of the oppression and suffering which has taken place has left wounds and scars. (The child who grows up abused may not be healed by achieving his freedom.)
These three verses develop the idea of force and struggle. There is not any agreement between this male and female. Each uses whatever force is available to him/her to dominate the other. This demonstrates the paradigm that the use of force perpetuates itself and that force cannot be overcome by force. Other strategies can undermine the force in power.