Brain Pickings

A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Vintage Illustrated Verses for Innocent and Experienced Travelers

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“William, William, writing late by the chill and sooty grate, what immortal story can make your tiger roar again?”

As an admirer of literary personification, a lover of vintage children’s books — especially ones with a literary slant and especially illustrated children’s verses by famous poets — and a longtime fan of Alice and Martin Provensen, I was instantly taken with A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers (public library) — a 1981 collection of playful poems by Nancy Willard that take us on a tour of Blake’s imaginary inn, inspired by Blake’s beloved Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience and tenderly illustrated by the Provensens in their signature mid-century sensibility of vibrant vignettes and expressive creatures.

This inn belongs to William Blake
and many are the beasts he’s tamed
and many are the stars he’s named
and many those who stop and take
their joyful rest with William Blake.

Two mighty dragons brew and bake
and many are the loaves they’ve burned
and many are the spits they’ve turned
and many those who stop and break
their joyful bread with William Blake.

Two patient angels wash and shake
his featherbeds, and far away
snow falls like feathers. That’s the day
good children run outside and make
snowmen to honor William Blake.

THE KING OF CATS
SENDS A POSTCARD TO HIS WIFE

Keep your whiskers crisp and clean.
Do not let the mice grow lean.
Do not let yourself grow fat
Like a common kitchen cat.

Have you set the kittens free?
Do they sometimes ask for me?
Is our catnip growing tall?
Did you patch the garden wall?

Clouds are gentle walls that hide
Gardens on the other side.
Tell the tabby cats I take
All my meals with William Blake,

Lunch at noon tea at four,
Served in splendor on the shore
At the tinkling of a bell.
Tell them I am sleeping well.

Tell them I have come so far,
Brought by Blake’s celestial cat,
Buffeted by wind and rain,
I may not get home again.

Take this message to my friends.
Say the King of Catnip sends
To the cat who winds his clocks
A thousand sunsets in a box,

To the cat who brings the ice
The shadows of a dozen mice
(serve them with assorted dips
and eat them like potato chips),

And to the cat who guards his door
A net for catching stars, and more
(if patience he abide):
Catnip from the other side.

THE KING OF CATS
ORDERS AN EARLY BREAKFAST

Roast me a wren to start with.
Then, Brisket of Basilisk Treat.
My breakfast is “on the house”?
What a curious place to eat!
There’s no accounting for customs.
My tastes are simple and few,
a fat mole smothering in starlight
and a heavenly nine-mouse stew.

I shall roll away from the table
looking twice my usual size.
“Behold the moon!” you will whisper.
“How marvelous his disguise.
How like the King of Cats he looks,
how similar his paws
and his prodigious appetite–
why, in the middle of the night
he ate, with evident delight,
a dozen lobster claws.”

TWO SUNFLOWERS
MOVE INTO THE YELLOW ROOM

“Ah, William, we’re weary of weather,”
said the sunflowers, shining with dew.
“Our traveling habits have tired us.
Can you give us a room with a view?”

They arranged themselves at the window
and counted the steps of the sun,
and they both took root in the carpet
where the topaz tortoises run.

THE MARMALADE MAN
MAKES A DANCE TO MEND US

Tiger, Sunflowers, King of Cats,
Cow and Rabbit, mend your ways.
I the needle, you the thread –
follow me through mist and maze.

Fox and hound, go paw in paw.
Cat and rat, be best of friends.
Lamb and tiger, walk together.
Dancing starts where fighting ends.

THE TIGER ASKS BLAKE FOR A BEDTIME STORY

William, William, writing late
by the chill and sooty grate,
what immortal story can
make your tiger roar again?

When I sent to fetch your meat
I confess that I did eat
half the roast and all the bread.
He will never know, I said.

When I was sent to fetch your drink,
I confess that I did think
you would never miss the three
lumps of sugar by your tea.

Soon I saw my health decline
and I knew the fault was mine.
Only William Blake can tell
tales to make a tiger well.

Now I lay me down to sleep
with bear and rabbit, bird and sheep.
If I should dream before I wake,
may I dream of William Blake.

EPILOGUE

My adventures now are ended.
I and all whom I befriended
from this holy hill must go
home to lives we left below.

Farewell cow and farewell cat,
rabbit, tiger, sullen rat.
To our children we shall say
how we walked the Milky Way.

You whose journeys now begin,
if you reach a lovely inn,
if a rabbit makes your bed,
if two dragons bake your bread,
rest a little for my sake,
and give my love to William Blake.

Gracing the very last page is a piece of heart-warming, aphoristic advice:

A Visit to William Blake’s Inn received the Caldecott Honor Medal, the highest recognition in children’s literature, in 1982. Five years later, Martin passed away. Alice, currently in her nineties, continues to draw.

Thanks, Wendy

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