Today I played at Beamish Museum in a celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the hymn ‘Jerusalem’. Beyond doubt, it’s worth a blog post. (Side-note: I can’t seem to keep a consistent tone in my writing today. I hope it isn’t horribly noticeable.)
I’ll begin with its history. Set the scene: 1916. For two long years, war had decimated the youth of Europe. Ypres. Verdun. Loos. Arras.
Poet Laureate Robert Bridges had recently edited an anthology of patriotic verse, and rediscovered in it the sixteen lines which serve as a preface to William Blake’s epic poem ‘Milton’. Though passing unnoticed at publication in 1808 and throughout that century, these lines Bridges now gave to the composer Sir Hubert Parry, requesting that he set them to music.
The tune was written, arranged, printed, sung at a campaign meeting by various choral societies of London. The women’s suffrage movement took it up, as did public schools such as Elizabeth College in Guernsey—they speak of it with more ardour than most teenage boys display towards anything (with the possible exception of FIFA). The famous composer Edward Elgar wrote his own orchestration, and so its popularity soared, and became a symbol of English morale.
In 1918, the war ended—and Parry passed away. Since then, Jerusalem has been used by all the major political parties, adopted as the anthem of the Women’s Institute, rugby teams, the hymn book, and the Proms.
I’ve found so many articles about Jerusalem that are focussed almost entirely on Sir Hubert Parry. In the first place, it seems counterproductive to esteem a composer for a single work. I, for one, know none of his earlier music, but since he died two years after Jerusalem became the Georgian equivalent of a number one hit, it rather eclipses the entirety of his previous career. In the second instance, I find it far more interesting to discuss the words of Jerusalem, chiefly because they’re steeped in controversy.
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountain green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark satanic mills?
Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
The most common interpretation is a religious one. Firstly, it’s important to understand that Jerusalem is a standard metaphor for Heaven in Church of England jargon. This is explored in the two verses: the first Jerusalem, and the second Jerusalem.
The four questions in the first verse are a speculation drawing upon an apocryphal story, in which Jesus visits England during his early years. It follows that if this visit happened, Jesus would have ‘brought’ Heaven to England, representing the first Jerusalem.
Progressing to the second verse, it’s easy to derive parallels from the Book of Revelation. Revelation tells of the glorious second coming of Jesus, just as Blake writes of a new Jerusalem taking root in England.
But was it so idealistic as it sounds? ‘Dark satanic mills’ is often attributed to the Industrial Revolution sweeping England inside out—but, more deeply than that, Blake is attacking the bondage of institutions, organised religion, education, and the corruption inherent in Victorian society.
Does that negate any religious intent? Blake was committed to social change, and he held staunch revolutionary views for which he was at one point charged with treason. But though intensely religious, the real irony lies in the usage of his words, rather than their interpreted meaning: originally defaming the ‘institutions of repression’, his poem has become a symbol of national solidarity and patriotism. It appeals somewhat to the English humour.
Nevertheless, I believe something of Blake’s original intention is yet preserved. The bourgeois generals sending thousands of men to their death in the Great War are analogous to the social shackles of Blake’s Victorian England. Today, the bonds of capitalism and social class loom still on the minds of the English people.
When I watch the crowds of tourists filtering through Beamish Museum stop by the bandstand and pour their voices into the hymn, knowing the words as if writ on their hearts, singing of the Lamb of God though many may be atheists, and ‘England’s pleasant pastures’ though they won’t admit their patriotism even to themselves, I can’t help but think that this song has touched them. Its stirring words, its iconic tune: no wonder they’re trying to make it our national anthem. ‘God Save the Queen’, as MP Toby Perkins argued earlier this year, is the anthem of Britain, but as of now, the country of England has none to officially call our own. None but this one.
If you want to read more about Blake and Jerusalem, here’s a great article.