Another Perspective

Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ — Forget It!

What explains the popularity of this ghastly hymn, its words written by a 18th-century free-lance kook and sung at royal weddings?

By 5.3.11

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The English professor, London Times columnist, and general cultural guru Mary Beard stated shortly after 9/11 that, once "the shock had faded," many people thought "the United States had it coming," and that "world bullies, even if their heart is in the right place, will in the end pay the price."

In a November 2007 interview, she stated that the hostility which these comments provoked had still not subsided (I wonder why?), although she believed it had become a standard viewpoint that terrorism was associated with American foreign policy. Anyway, now she is upset.

She has just asked in the Times Literary Supplement why, at the Royal Wedding: "How come the great and the good of this country don't appear to know the words of 'Jerusalem' without looking at their hymn sheets, and even then don't seem to be quite certain of how the words fit the tune?"

She asked other questions, equally if not more stupid, but this one, I think is, given "Jerusalem's" popularity, and her own opinions on international events, worth commenting on.

"Jerusalem," which is in any case arguably not a hymn at all, and not appropriate for a religious (or, I hope to show, any other event) setting, was written by the 18th-century free-lance kook William Blake, and later adopted as the semi official-hymn of the Labour Party, whose members still sing it at Party gatherings, though it is doubtful if even they understand it. It bears, as George Bernard Shaw said of its rival the Internationale, "all the panache of the funeral march of a fried eel." Blake himself had a weird idiosyncratic set of religious beliefs which could be called Christian only by stretching the meaning of the word to its limits.

"Jerusalem" goes as follows:

And did those [i.e. Christ's] feet in ancient times
Walk upon England's mountains green
And was the Holy Lamb of God
In England's pleasant pastures seen?

The answer is, of course, to anyone with even an elementary knowledge of history and archeology, is "No." The fact that it can be set to a catchy and attractive tune does not prevent it from being rubbish. There is no evidence that Christ ever visited England, and though it is just possible in the sense of not being entirely impossible or conclusively disproved (see my article on the Glastonbury Thorn, TAS, Dec. 20, 2010), it is extremely unlikely. "Jerusalem" continues:

And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here.
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Well, we've already answered that. Scholars have debated over what Blake meant (assuming that he had any clear idea himself) by that line about "dark Satanic mills." While it has long been taken for granted by many that Blake was referring, literally, to the mills of the industrial revolution, relatively few if these had come on stream in 1808, when "Jerusalem" was written, while there seems to be a case that he was actually referring to the hated (by him) Universities of the Enlightenment, including that at which Mary Beard is employed.

Sir Isaac Newton, Voltaire, and a mythical figure called Urizon ("You reason," geddit?) Blake saw as particular enemies of humanity, spreading the poison of enlightenment and reason.

Anyway, Britain's problem is not now the spread of dark Satanic mills (an abandoned industrial site, well overgrown, can look strangely beautiful), but keeping what mills and other factories it still has open, and, as far as universities go, getting the students to take on hard subjects like chemistry or engineering.

The poem goes on into the heights of paranoid grandiosity. The late Osama bin Laden, now removed to warmer climes, would particularly have liked that piece about "chariots of fire," for which he could surely have found a use.

Bring me by bow of burning gold,
Bring me my arrows of desire;
Bring me my spear, Oh clouds, unfold,
Bring me my chariot of fire …

Yes, and head it for Ground Zero, maybe. This is the sort of verse one can imagine Charlie Manson concocting if he was a better hand at rhyme, and indeed Blake's poetry was enormously popular in the drug-addled '60s that also tried to make a hero out of Manson..

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 

Oh yeah, and just who is going to get the benefit of the sword? We've seen attempts to build versions of the New Jerusalem, with or without the sword, since Blake wrote, and we've seen what they led to.

It is all very well claiming that poems like this are simply lyrical, there will always be nut-jobs around who will take them literally and act on them. The sooner "Jerusalem" is forgotten the better, and while I lament the loss of many facets of Britain's historical memory and culture, this piece of it is something we can well do without.

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About the Author

Hal G.P. Colebatch, a lawyer and author, has lectured in International Law and International Relations at Notre Dame University and Edith Cowan University in Western Australia and worked on the staff of two Australian Federal Ministers.