A Visit to William Blake’s Inn by Nancy Willard, is intended as a child’s introduction to William Blake, the man and the poet. Publisher’s Weekly, and the Newbery and Caldecott Literary Award committees recommend A Visit to William Blake’s Inn for children aged four to eight years. In her introduction Willard expresses her “astonishment“, at the age of seven, on hearing the first stanza of The Tyger (perhaps William Blake’s best known poem). It appears that we are to take this as evidence of his appeal to children.
Any review of A Visit to William Blake’s Inn must ensure that William Blake and his poetry are fairly represented. Any judgment of this children’s book must consider whether it succeeds in its representation of William Blake, and does so in a manner suited to children.
A Visit to William Blake’s Inn consists of a seventeen poems that seek to engage one with fantastic, even absurd, characters and actions. Through the book, it is implied that the ‘key’ to understanding William Blake is being able to enter an imaginary world of strange events and characters.
When we enter the ‘Inn’ of Nancy Willard’s creation we find dragons cooking in the kitchen and angels making beds. We climb aboard “Blake’s Celestial Limousine” and are told we are carrying too much “luggage“. This is a clear reference to the ‘baggage’ of reality and the reason that we must put it aside. Indeed, the visitor’s luggage must be,
and worn discreetly on your hat
or served with mustard on a bun.
Next a Rabbit introduces the reader’s room, furnished only with an accommodating bear in place of a bed. The bear is also the visitor’s alarm clock:
When I blow on your eyes,
you will see the sun rise
with the man in the marmalade hat.
The marmalade man arrives that morning
equipped with a bottle of starch
to straighten the bends in the road…
Elsewhere, we learn of a cat eating a “nine mouse stew“, a cow eating clouds on freshly buttered bread, and sunflowers that “arrange themselves” in a window “with a view“.
In, “The Wise Cow Makes Way, Room and Believe“, the Rabbit again appears, giving The Wise Cow direct injunctions to “make way” for, and “make room” for, his imagination, and to “make believe”. The Rabbit, and the Wise Cow, effectively symbolize the type of imagining A Visit to William Blake’s Inn fosters –the absurdist fantasy of Lewis Carroll. But William Blake did not enjoin anyone to imagine for imaginations sake –especially not as gleeful reality distortion.
William Blake (1757 – 1827) lived in England when ideas of individual and intellectual independence were rising to the fore. These were the ideas that lead to American Independence and the enshrinement, for the first time in history, of a man’s Right to his own life, liberty and property. It was a cultural and intellectual revolution only matched by the rise of the best of the Greek civilization. Nonetheless, mythological and religious notions were well known, and widely influenced intellectual life and language.
William Blake’s poetry regularly presents strange mythological beings. But these figures are not arbitrary, instead they represent, with carefully devised symbolism, a variety of cultural, spiritual and emotional states or attitudes to which he was very sensitive. Serious students of Blake find him to be a man of extraordinarily independent and purposeful vision.
That A Visit to William Blake’s Inn presents Blake’s figures as unrestrained fancy makes a mockery of what he was and stood for. Lauding such fancy also promotes an approach to the intellectual requirements of a child’s mind of which Blake would not have approved.
An advocate for children…
The real Blake believed, through the then widely known arguments of Swedenborg Christianity, that the establishment churches were blinding their congregation to the truly spiritual nature of God’s Universe. He believed the Establishment was hypocritical, because they advocated human commitment to spiritual matters whilst stifling individual efforts to explore them beyond church doctrine.
Some of Blake’s poems express great pain in this respect. In A Little Boy Lost (below), a boy, who is explicitly aware of the value of his own self interest, is burned to death by church leaders before his parents’ eyes –for his heresy. In this and many poems Blake argues for a freer, more individualistic approach to spirituality. Every man, beginning with a childhood un-manacled by The Church, should be free to pursue his own beliefs. To Blake, spiritual inquiry required an unfettered imagination and intellectual freedom, but he was not invoking a license to absurdity.
Blake’s political views also suggest a serious approach to belief. Blake knew Thomas Paine, and was very serious about the political changes developing in America. The religious and political environment emerging in America would allow the intellectual and spiritual freedom Blake believed Men and children needed. His poem, America: A Prophecy (1793), celebrated the liberation of America from the intellectual and material tyranny of Europe. He presented the revolutionary conflict as the rise and fall of complex mythical figures that reflected spiritual aspects of humanity. E.g. he used thirteen white angels to represent the colonies. The poem even names certain minds behind the revolution:
Washington, Franklin, Paine & Warren, Gates, Hancock & Green;
Meet on the coast glowing with blood from Albion’s fiery Prince.
(“Albion” is England)
It is distinctly important here that Blake’s mythical figures are symbols evoking the nature of the combatants and their conflict; they were not “Wise Cows” and “Rabbit”s.
Blake’s brilliance lay in the way he used mythical imagery to weave together the spiritual and social issues that so concerned him. His work is rife with questions and issues concerning the true nature of Man, of Religion and the mystical nature of God and the Universe. He was clearly in strong disagreement with both the British power structure and the religious establishment of the time.
…not a children’s poet
Blake’s belief in imagination and intellectual independence should not be confused with today’s, and apparently Willard’s, Modernist view of imagination. He certainly did not advocate imagination as “anything goes”, such that any absurd product of imagination should be seen as an achievement. Unfortunately, A Visit to William Blake’s Inn leaves only this Modernist impression of Blake. To use Blake’s style while evoking the casual absurdities of a Lewis Carroll fantasy demeans Blake’s struggle to understand the Universe and Man. Blake would not be amused.
The notion that Blake’s works were for the entertainment and interest of the young entails a significant academic lapse, especially given his spiritual convictions and his style. It is true that Blake often referred to Children, but that is not the same as writing for children. Christian culture commonly refers to all mankind as the ‘children’ of God. We are also His “flock”, Jesus was a “lamb” etc. And, surely it is obvious that Blake’s advanced imagery was not aimed at young readers, but at the considerably well-read youth or adult. It is also true that Blake wrote poems about children. He was concerned with their intellectual well being at the hands of the adults to whom he was writing. None of this means his poems were composed to directly advise or entertain children.
Unfortunately the latter interpretation, adopted by many literate readers, appears as a second faulty premise of Willard’s work. The view of the British Library Board nearly suggests why:
Blake’s poetry is unique in its wide appeal; its seeming simplicity makes it attractive to children, while its complex religious, political and mythological imagery provokes enduring debate amongst scholars.
In fact, very few of Blake’s poems are “attractive to children.”
As mentioned above, in her introduction Willard first experienced Blake’s The Tyger when at seven years of age:
Tyger Tyger burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
How many literal-minded seven year olds can understand “burning bright” as a joint reference to the human soul in the dark universe, and to the tiger as a contrast to a Biblical lamb?
To a child, not an adult, the rest of The Tyger is even more abstruse. Because the child cannot grasp the symbolism in Blakes images, Tyger offers the child nothing but a series of appealing sounds and disconnected images. They appear and disappear like rapidly flashing images in a television commercial. If the child happens to enjoy that “seeming simplicity”, she has only ‘discovered’ Blake at the most superficial level.
Perhaps it is this shallow understanding that perpetuates the notion that Blake’s poetry is for children. The chance that a child will adopt so shallow a view of poetry is itself reason to keep a child from Blake, and particularly from A Visit to William Blake’s Inn. It is not a wrong for children to be lead to believe they know Blake, through rhyme and rhythm, if they are to remain, in adulthood, unaware of Blake’s profundity.
Indeed, to promote poetry only for its sound and ‘feel’ is to reduce a profoundly intellectual art form to mere sensation. Imagine suggesting to a child that Michelangelo’s sculptures are important mainly because his marble finishes as smooth & shiny as a counter top. Even a pre-school child expects life to be more exciting and rewarding! In large part, one should wait until the child is old enough to properly explore Blake’s work in search of meaning and value, and to then enjoy his brilliant imagery and turns of phrase.
There is another reason to keep A Visit to William Blake’s Inn off your child’s reading list. Many of the mystical and religious ideas Blake assumes or questions are now intellectually defunct. Should a child actually enjoy A Visit to William Blake’s Inn and then pursue Blake’s poetry, she will not only lack the experience needed to judge Blake in the proper historical and philosophical context, she will not know what to make of his ideas. Blake would be horrified to see Innocence arrive at his poetry, only to be lost by his hand. Blake’s poetry was written for the more objectively mature individual. Today this requires some interest in the cultural and historical context influencing his thoughts.
Given the above, one might be justified in finding that A Visit to William Blake’s Inn misrepresents Blake, and encourages children to considerable misunderstanding concerning both Blake and the art of poetry. At best, A Visit to William Blake’s Inn is a literary red herring.
A Little Boy Lost
Nought loves another as itself,
Nor venerates another so,Nor is it possible to thought
A greater than itself to know.
“And, father, how can I love you
Or any of my brothers more?
I love you like the little bird
That picks up crumbs around the door.”
The Priest sat by and heard the child;
In trembling zeal he seized his hair,
He led him by his little coat,
And all admired the priestly care.
And standing on the altar high,
“Lo, what a fiend is here!’ said he:
“One who sets reason up for judge
Of our most holy mystery.”
The weeping child could not be heard,
The weeping parents wept in vain:
They stripped him to his little shirt,
And bound him in an iron chain,
And burned him in a holy place
Where many had been burned before;
The weeping parents wept in vain.
Are such things done on Albion’s shore?