Why we... believe that 'Jerusalem' is not a nationalistic hymn

August 17, 2001
England, union flags at Westminster

As abstruse 18th-century lyrics go, William Blake's "Jerusalem" has staying power. A teacup of controversy was stirred last week when the musical director of Cheadle Parish Church, Martyn Barrow, refused to play the hymn at a wedding on the grounds that it - and "I Vow to Thee My Country" - is too nationalistic. His decision was supported by the Reverend Donald Allister, who is known for his forthright views on everything from homosexuality to sex outside marriage.

 

This refusal to allow a church to be used for a nationalist singalong might seem a responsible, if over-reactionary, decision so soon after the Bradford and related race riots. But closer scrutiny of the affair shows the vicar's real objections and undermines the idea that "Jerusalem" is a straightforward hymn of the nation.

Significantly, Allister seemed far less exercised by "I Vow to Thee My Country" than Blake's stanzas. He observed that, from his reading of Blake, "Jerusalem" was a poem concerned with building a "socialist-type utopia", one that would appeal to "proto-atheists and proto-socialists". But ultimately, his biggest objection to the hymn was "it is just nonsense".

To be fair, for many who sing Blake's words, set to music by Hubert Parry in 1916, the meaning of "Jerusalem", with its "bow of burning gold" and "dark satanic mills", is probably as obscure as any piece of Romantic poetry. Others might recognise Allister's evaluation of it as a nationalist tract or evocation of a socialist utopia, although they will likely reside on opposing sides of the political divide.

Blake composed the stanzas some time between 1804 and 1818 as a preface to his epic poem "Milton", in which Milton the poet, not quite cutting it in heaven, pops down to earth to redeem the fallen nation, Albion.

The poem is hardly a celebration of Britain during the Napoleonic wars. Like other radicals such as William Cobbett and William Godwin, Blake observed the propertied classes crush down those beneath them in the name of national interest. Hence, this is a poem of struggle for human - not national - identity.

Neither is it a celebration of a traditional Christian status quo. In heaven, Milton realises the error of his ways when confronted with the doctrine of the Calvinist Elect, the chosen elite who believe that God has selected them alone for heaven and condemned all others to hell. If you want a comparison today, look for any group that preaches against the other, from Allister's shunning of homosexuality to prime minister Tony Blair's "tough but tender" stance on asylum seekers.

If Jerusalem, then, is a proto-atheist hymn, it is because Blake, like many radical dissenters, believed that the powerful of this world were guilty of worshipping Mammon in the name of Jehovah. If Jerusalem is nonsense then it is no more so than other religious texts.

Parry, and indeed George V, believed that this hymn could become a national anthem to replace the dreary dirge of "God Save the King" and pep up the nation during the dark times of the first world war. While it has still to achieve that status - officially, at least - "Jerusalem" has become a favourite of the Proms and the Women's Institute, but also of the Jarrow marchers and leftwing musicians such as Billy Bragg.

There is a particular tension between Blake's words and Parry's music that, for Bragg, means "the song does not belong alongside "Rule Britannia" and "Land of Hope and Glory" at the Last Night of the Proms". However, as a poem of struggle, exhorting Albion to "awake", it is one that is worth defending.

 

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Reader's comments (3)

Blake's poem asks as a question or maybe as statement posing as question the thought or historical documentation that Jesus did tread upon those green and pleasant lands. The placing of the feet of Jesus upon the land means for me that the spirit does not reside only within the invisibility of the soul but vibrates and enters into the land it walks upon. The rule of that land cannot be untouched by the spirit of God anymore than the foot of a man can not fail to touch or mark the ground it walks upon. For the vibration of that spirit will test all things including the fiscal rules or decisions of a land. And if that land put pure profit the (Dark Satanic Mills) 'money' over the soul of Man then this will be confronted by the spirit of God. Jerusalem for me means a liberty the same Biblical liberty Jesus spoke of to know the higher order of life a knowledge the Kingdom of Heaven as knowledge the holy spirit as the wisdom. Heaven then is made on earth by the vessel of a man that walks with a higher order, wisdom and knowledge that God showed is possible to manifest in the body of a man in Jesus. It is as necessary for that Higher order to be in the land the earth as it is for the soul to be in the vessel of a man as both were made by God. So for me the song is very spiritual and holds meanings that praise God. The poetic descriptions of the land if interpreted only in Nationalistic terms could make it seem that it is not praising God. But for me the description of Jesus' feet touching the land is why I see it as a movement of the Holy Spirit into the earth and the very rule of the earth and it is the rule of the earth that is always and forever God.
I have always thought that the Dark Satanic Mills refer to Oxford and Cambridge.
This is Blake's most obvious poem. It is about as atheist as the pope is Jewish. It is a statement of faith in the coming of a more holy age that is very different from what the powers of this world, to include the English establishment of Blake's time, have constructed. It is patriotic in the truest and best sense of wanting what is best for one's country.

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