The English are strangely absent from much of their own culture. They have no parliament, no national museum to tell their story, nor any national anthem to call their own. As a result, the pomp and circumstance of the British identity often relegates Englishness to the back seat. Sport is one of the few outlets in which the people of England are able to see themselves represented as a nation and, in the faces of the team players, as a diverse community brought together under the flag of St George.
And when looking for a song to express that inclusive English identity, they increasingly reach for “Jerusalem”. Since the turn of the century, it has become the anthem of choice for the national cricket and rugby union teams and, in 2010, the public voted overwhelmingly for it to replace “Land of Hope and Glory” as the official anthem of Team England at the Commonwealth Games.
Yet, like Englishness itself, the meaning of William Blake’s poem is ambiguous. In his highly accessible book, Jerusalem: Blake, Parry and the Fight for Englishness, Jason Whittaker sets out to explore what Blake is saying in “Jerusalem” and what its revival in the 21st century says about us.
The poem appears in the preface to Milton, one of Blake’s prophetic books, written and illustrated in the first decade of the 19th century. It remained obscure until 1916, when Hubert Parry set it to music, and became a fixture for the finale of the Last Night of the Proms from 1953 onwards. Yet unlike the other songs sung lustily amid the flag-waving at the Royal Albert Hall, Blake’s four quatrains were not written to stir patriotic feelings.
“Jerusalem” famously begins with a series of questions to which the answer is no: Did Jesus – “the Lamb of God” – visit England? Does God – “the Countenance Divine” – look upon the English with benevolence? Was the model of Christian charity – “Jerusalem” – apparent in early 19th-century England, where the rural workforce were being fed into the dark Satanic mills of the Industrial Revolution?
Blake knows the answer to his rhetorical questions. Why else would he call for the tools he will need to build that compassionate community in our green and pleasant land? The fact that these metaphorical tools are weapons has attracted militarists to the song since it was set to music during the First World War. Parry was a leading composer of his day, the first Englishman to write complex symphonies. Whittaker describes him as displaying a bias against Toryism, being a firm believer in women’s suffrage who attended labour demonstrations in Hyde Park.
Yet, when he was asked to come up with a propaganda song for Fight for Right, a movement devoted to “maintaining a keenness for the war” among a reluctant British citizenry, Parry duly composed the setting for Blake’s poem. While he may have been acting out of a sense of patriotic duty, disillusionment with the campaign soon followed, and he withdrew support in May 1917.
Perhaps conducting “Jerusalem” at a Votes for Women demonstration at the Royal Albert Hall earlier that year had reminded Parry of his principles. The leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), Millicent Fawcett, wrote him a letter of thanks: “Your ‘Jerusalem’ ought to be made the Women Voters Hymn.” Parry concurred, donating the copyright of the song to the NUWSS.
Thus since its creation, Parry’s “Jerusalem” has led a dual existence. Yes, it is a patriotic song, but patriotism has many shades. For the traditional patriot, whose identity is bound up in symbols that are immutable and institutions that must be supported, such as the monarchy and the armed forces, “Jerusalem” is stripped of its question marks – the English are clearly God’s anointed people. For the progressive patriot, who takes pride in the values that the nation aspires to uphold and believes in collective solutions to society’s problems, Blake’s words are a call to action: look at this God-forsaken land! Let’s work together to make it better. Therein may lie its appeal over more unambiguously patriotic songs such as “Rule Britannia”. It’s certainly become the people’s choice for weddings, funerals or civic events. In that sense, “Jerusalem” has become a kind of English spiritual.
But what was Blake’s meaning in writing the poem? Whittaker draws our attention to Blake’s paragraphs that proceed “Jerusalem”s opening line, “And did those feet in ancient time…” in the preface to Milton, which, taken together, Whittaker describes as a manifesto. The second paragraph begins: “Rouze up O Young Men of the New Age! Set your foreheads against the ignorant Hirelings! For we have Hirelings in the Camp, the Court & the University: who would if they could, for ever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War.” This distinction between mental fight and physical violence is crucial to understanding the song. The poem’s arrows of desire and the bow of burning gold are metaphorical weapons, as is the sword of justice, which Blake promises will not sleep in his hand.
The Church of England seems alert to the poem’s intent, having been wary of including “Jerusalem” in its hymnals, arguing that it does not meet the traditional definition of a hymn as a song in praise of God. In his use of religious imagery, Blake has more in common with the radical sects of the 17th century, such as the Diggers and the Ranters, who were inspired by biblical texts to challenge the status quo. It was a time when the ordinary people of England were moved by their faith to speak out against injustice, taking up arms against the aristocracy. That sentiment is echoed in the final line of the preface to Milton. Beneath the words of “Jerusalem” Blake wrote “Would to God that all the Lords people were prophets”.
Whittaker has fun tracing the curious journey that the song has been on over the last 100 years, from being the favourite of George V in the 1930s – he preferred it to “God Save the King” – to being adopted by the Labour Party in the 1940s. Clement Attlee recognised Blake’s vision as a fitting inspiration for a postwar government engaged in building the New Jerusalem of the welfare state.
When many of Fawcett’s foot soldiers went on to join the Women’s Institute (WI), they took their song with them, giving sexist commentators an opportunity to dismiss the work of the WI as nothing more than “jam and Jerusalem”. By the late Seventies it was ripe for parody by anyone looking to evoke the complacency of the postwar consensus. Reading how it was used by pop musicians in the Eighties and Nineties has made me realise that I may be the only artist of that period to record a version of the song free from any hint of irony.
With its connections to women’s suffrage, “Jerusalem” would have been an ideal anthem for the Lionesses to sing before their matches at the recent European Championships. Yet the FA seems nervous about replacing “God Save the King/Queen”, perhaps because it fears the belligerent response of a vocal, almost exclusively male, minority of England fans, which still sours the atmosphere at men’s internationals.
“Jerusalem” waits for the people of England to find the courage to embrace an inclusive, post-imperial identity. By taking a deep dive into the history of the song, Whittaker offers us an inspiring insight into what could be a rallying point for that new English identity.
Jerusalem: Blake, Parry and the Fight for Englishness
Oxford University Press, 272pp, £25
Purchasing a book may earn the NS a commission from Bookshop.org, who support independent bookshops
[See also: Hilary Mantel: “I had to be in middle age to imagine what the weight of life does to you”]