It is a lyric and melody seemingly sewn into the very fabric of what it is to be English, yet ‘Jerusalem’ remains inexorably contentious and impossible to pin down. Sung, at various times, as the celebratory anthem of bodies as diverse as the Labour and Conservative Parties, the English Commonwealth Games team and the Women’s Institute, ‘Jerusalem’ continues to connote different things to different people, yet, argues Keiron Phelan, the meaning of William Blake’s poem, asset to Sir Hubert Parry’s stirring music, is not quite as mistily allegorical as it s all -too – familiar words might at first suggest.
 
And did those feet in ancient time Walk upon England’s mountains 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 these 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 & pleasant Land
(William Blake)
 
In the blissfully election-free atmosphere of last year, I happened to record and release (as part of the band Silver Servants) an arrangement of the song ‘Jerusalem’. The piece itself, with music by the Edwardian composer William Parry and words taken from the late 18th century poet, painter and mystic William Blake, should need little introduction. Along with our rather dirge-like National Anthem (and some of Paul McCartney’s more annoying earworms) it is probably this country’s single most recognisable tune. Banging around, endlessly, at political party conferences, last nights of the Proms, at numerous national sporting events and ringing out in church services, ‘Jerusalem’ has become a kind of musical Big Ben; it’s just seems to have always ‘been there’.
I am, of course, far from the first usurper to have a crack at this grand old ditty. Billy Bragg briefly made it his own back in 1990; the Waterboys have co-opted it, as have the KLF, Bono (natch’) and who can forget the Emerson, Lake and Palmer version? Well, we can but try to.
My own effort is a rather shandy-drinking affair (certainly compared to the mighty ELP) but it found some favour on the radio, becoming a particular favourite of Lauren Laverne on her BBC 6Music show. “This makes me feel a little bit better about being English,” she kindly opined. The fact that her comment did not strike me as in the least peculiar perhaps sits at the heart of ‘Jerusalem’s’ singularity as a piece of work and complexity as an expression of feeling. As a country, we are not given, on the whole, to national tub-thumping (or so we like to kid ourselves) and tend, in our doubtlessly liberal minds, to regard any overt expressions of patriotism as somewhat questionable, if not downright dubious or distasteful. England, itself, has no official anthem. On the other hand, if you are going to sing about yourselves, if you are going to sing about England, what, exactly, should you sing?
The reaction of my own friends to the version I’d fashioned was instructive. Many enjoyed and approved. Some, however, raised eyebrows and there was one notable incidence of a comprehensive and impassioned political reprimand. Well, fair do’s. Not to seem unduly disingenuous, I should confess that I had realised that I might be treading a contentious path. My stab at the piece was intended to be light, a little indirect and a little dreamy, but it was not intended to be ironic. I meant it, man. Despite the fact that the ensemble assembled as fit for the task of recording it incorporated such un-English ingredients as flamenco-style guitar and Miles Davis-esque trumpet, and that its lyrics were delivered by a Danish woman (for whom the words were merely ‘intriguing’), there was always the possibility of a ‘You voting Attila the Hun now, then?’ response from some quarters. I might, metaphorically, have just hung a Union Jack out of my bedroom window. The notion that ‘Jerusalem’ might be co-opted as an expression of the St. George Cross-displaying, white van-driving masses’ vulgar nationalism surely carries some currency among the chattering classes. It may also be remembered that an ‘I know better than you what you should think’ mentality (for example, last year’s infamous ‘drippingly patronising’ Rochester by-election image tweet by Labour peer Emily Thornberry) may win you few friends in politics and quite unfairly tar people with the bigot’s brush. So, if you like, consider the tug between the vulgar and aesthetic expressions of ‘England’s Dreaming’ to be the well-spring of this article.
For an ostensibly unifying piece, ‘Jerusalem’ can be interestingly divisive (a plus point, in my book). It has been variously loathed by the Left as an English nationalistic sing-along and hated by the Right as a call for the establishment of an English socialist-type utopia. Further in from the edges, both the Labour and Conservative Parties have widely utilised the piece, Labour having something of an edge here. It rather fell out of Tory fashion during the Thatcher era, whereas it is generally sung every year at the end of the Labour Party Conference, alongside ‘The Red Flag’.
So if it is not, as the above evidence suggests, a nationalistic song, what, exactly, was ‘Jerusalem’ written to be? Firstly, it should be made clear, it is not (technically) a hymn. It is, in fact, a unison song, which means it sounds like a hymn but isn’t. It was not written as a hymn and as it does not represent a prayer to God; indeed, many churches won’t entertain it. I recently expounded on this topic to a friend who then patiently explained to me that she’d sung it in church throughout her entire childhood and that, perhaps, I was being ‘just a little bit too text book about the whole thing’. So, while ‘Jerusalem’ is not, strictly, a hymn, by common usage it has become one. As always (as we shall see) with this oddly contentious piece of music, contradictions abound.
While few would deny that Parry’s tune for Jerusalem is genuinely stirring, some might suggest that it also possesses an anthemic, triumphalist tone. This, I think, is largely located in Elgar’s orchestration of the piece (which is the version that has been used since the early 1920s, and is the one that you are likely to be familiar with). This orchestration is large scale and quite different from Parry’s own, more contemplative, orchestrated version. However, it is also the case that the vast majority of all Edwardian orchestral music will necessarily sound somewhat grandiose, if not bombastic, to the modern ear. It’s the end product of compositional Late Romanticism and just as crooner ballads will always sound somewhat over-sentimental to us, so the ‘establishment’ music of this earlier era will tend towards the ‘stately’.
As for the poem that constitutes the song’s lyrics, our source point is William Blake, unquestionably one of the most evocative but probably the most wilfully obscure writer in the whole of English literature. So don’t bet on too clear a picture. Blake wrote ‘Jerusalem’ circa 1804. Perhaps surprisingly, given its rather self-contained nature, it was not intended as a standalone piece but was a preface to the poet’s epic work Milton, a Poem. It is based upon the story that Jesus, alongside Joseph of Arimathea, visited England (Glastonbury, to be precise – where else?) during his youth. Before you all stampede to check your copies of the King James’ Bible, I should warn you that this story is non-canonical and religious and historical nonsense. That kind of petty detail did not deflect our Bill, however. Crucially, to its religious aspect, the poem makes no assertion as to the truth of the story but instead presents a series of questions (not unlike John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’) concerning what the story might imply to the disharmonious state of England and, in this context, ‘Jerusalem’ can be seen as a metaphor for heaven or, if you prefer, a place of universal love and peace. At this juncture it is worth mentioning that hippies have long adored William Blake as, indeed, does the Greatest Living (just) Englishman, Wilko Johnson. Cussed, moody individualists unite!
Blake’s position on political and religious spectra is hard to define. An outspoken supporter of the French Revolution (leading to him being nearly jailed for treason) and a life-long admirer of the more left-field aspects of the ‘English Revolution’ of the 17th century, Blake is in some ways a republican but can also, in a modern context, be plausibly viewed as a proto-anarchist. Theologically he’s somewhat off the scale. A nonconformist’s Nonconformist, he combined a form of Christian mysticism (which is often so obscurely self-referential, not to mention mixed in with Greek and Norse mythology, as to make little sense) with a deconstructed outlook on religion that borders on the atheistic. Yet, out of this conceptual morass, Blake, distressed by the political repressiveness and the hardships experienced by the working classes in the newly industrialised England, takes a look at his native land and brings forth such clear, concise and memorably emotive phrases as ‘England’s green and pleasant land’, ‘dark Satanic Mills’ and ‘Chariot of Fire’.
While such lines are memorable today, during the 19th century, the poem largely fell into obscurity. It took a little tune and rather more than a little war to lift it out and push it into our everyday consciousness. Blake’s poem resurfaced in 1916 in an anthology called The Spirit of Man, edited by the then Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges. The appalling casualty rate, savagery of fighting and apparent endless nature of the First World War had caused a marked drop in morale compared to the misbegotten enthusiasm that had largely marked its outbreak barely two years previously. Bridges had singled out ‘Jerusalem’ as a potential means of ‘bracing the spirit of the nation’. The martial references of the third stanza (‘Bow of burning gold’, etc.), although deeply anachronistic even in the early 20th century and rather more the stuff of Arthurian legend than grim battlefield reality, may have seemed appropriate. Perhaps it was felt that the very quaintness of the imagery aided in the continuing attempt to portray a ‘noble’ war. Either way, Bridges seems to have equated the idealism of the verse to the appeal for further sacrifices (deemed necessary) from the nation. To this end he asked the composer Sir Hubert Parry to set the lines to music for the benefit and usage of the Fight For Right (i.e. pro-war) campaign. Parry wrung his hands. While having grave doubts concerning this ultra-nationalistic campaign he was also reluctant to let Bridges down in a time of national crisis.
The music was duly completed and the first performance given on March 28th, 1916 at Queen’s Hall London. By May 1917, Parry had turned once again, his misgivings about the pro-war campaign had won out and led him to entirely withdraw his support. For a time it seemed likely that Parry, fingers singed, would withdraw the piece from all usage. That this did not happen is due to the parallel, unofficial, usage of ‘Jerusalem’ by the National Union Of Women’s Suffrage Societies. The Suffragettes had adopted the song in 1917 and Parry was asked if it might become the Women Voters’ Hymn (even though it wasn’t actually a hymn, of course). Parry, finally off of the nationalistic hook, delightedly assented and created the first fully orchestrated version of the piece for the occasion. Copyright of the piece was handed over to the NUWSS and it remained the property of the Woman’s Institute until it entered the public domain in 1968.
The multi-faceted nature of ‘Jerusalem’, therefore, had become apparent pretty much from its inception. But had Blake’s little slice of idealistic English mysticism been co-opted, changed and corrupted by this process?
Returning, obliquely, to John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ (because it was always that bloody song that was chosen for the exercise), I am now going to attempt the hideous, wince-inducing practice that was foisted upon us so often in Religious Education lessons at school back in the, er, good old 1970s. Yes, we’re going to look at what the lyrics really say. So this one’s for Mr Innes and the lads of 3C!
Now, let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that we are ‘we’, here, and that they (anyone who isn’t ‘us’) are ‘them’. Are you with me? Sorry, weak joke. But consider some points as to how ‘Jerusalem’ fares as a ‘patriotic’ song:
‘Jerusalem’ doesn’t say anything bad about ‘them’.
It does not crow over any sneaky little comeuppance that ‘we’ gave ‘them’, circa 1400 or at some such great remove (unlike ‘God Save the Queen’ regarding the Scots).
Nor does it imply that ‘we’ are better than ‘them’ (as does, say, ‘America the Beautiful’).
Nor does it say that ‘we’ are actually anything all that special (so, not ‘Deutschland Über Alles’ or ‘Rule Britannia’, then).
If fact, it rather implies that ‘we’ have a nice little neck of the woods, here, but don’t do very much to keep it spruce.
Lastly, it suggests (in the most nebulous possible way) that we might try a little bit harder for the old place, to the general benefit of all.
The language may be grandiloquent but it’s not exactly screaming a political agenda or waving a big flag, is it? In fact the main accusation that could be levelled at ‘Jerusalem’ is that it’s living in cloud cuckoo land. ‘What precisely are your policies, Mr Blake?’
But here is a point. In its essence ‘Jerusalem’, the song, is critical and it criticises the country that it is taken to be celebrating. It is not an evocation of a particular county’s ‘superiority’ or manifest destiny. It is not the self-aggrandizing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, it is not ‘Rule Britannia’, and it sits ill beside them at the Last Night of the Proms with its crowd of flag-waving, bow-tie disporting promenaders. Rather, it looks at England and asks, ‘is this good enough?’ It would be peculiar if William Blake, a man accused (in his time) of treason, should have contributed the words to a ‘secular hymn of the nation’. Peculiar, but entirely fitting!

William Blake (1757–1827)  Plate 1 from Europe a Prophecy, 1794  © Special Collections Department, University of Glasgow

William Blake (1757–1827)
Plate 1 from Europe a Prophecy, 1794
© Special Collections Department, University of Glasgow

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