I cannot hear the opening bars of the hymn Jerusalem by Hubert Parry without strong feelings of revulsion. The hymn is of course based on the an extract from the poem Milton by William Blake. In this context it has become a dumb symbol of patriotism and the rallying cry of the establishment. Blake was a radical, he was an early supporter of the french revolution and got in to trouble for a confrontation with a soldier who was trespassing on his property. His relationship with organized religion was not an easy one and he was a vocal critic of the hypocrisies of the church. Although he was a Christian his beliefs were far from orthodox. If Blake were to know what had become of his poem he would surely be horrified. He was certainly not a believer in the kind of dumb patriotism that repurposing of his words has been used to promote. John Higgs sums up the situation perfectly when he writes the following:
“There is now a long tradition of Blake being celebrated by authorities in ways that were, to those who understand his work fantastically inappropriate. When the Labour and Conservative parties sing ‘Jerusalem’ at their party political conferences, they are presumably unfamiliar with the context of those works the preface to the poem Milton. As they heartily bellow the lyric, moved by the stirring music, they seem unaware that they are calling for the revolutionary overthrowing of the ‘ignorant Hirelings’ of ‘the Camp, the Court & the University’. The song is sung by schoolboys in places such as Eton College who seem not to know that they are the uninspired, insipid targets of Blake’s words. Blake is trying to persuade them to to take up mental weapons, such as ‘Arrows of desire’, as well as physical ones, such as the sword that shall not ‘sleep in my hand’, until in order to burn their college down1.”
What patriotic sentiment that is present in the poem and the rest of Blake’s work is a romantic one that appeals to nature and the inherent goodness of mankind. This is a far cry from the unholy alliance of religious and state power that the monarchy in Britain represents.
Let as now turn to the music of the hymn itself: Parry struggles to unite the significance of the music with the words in the final lines of the second verse “Among these dark Satanic mills?”. Blake is using the rhetorical question to point out what he saw as the evils of the industrial revolution and in a stereotypical romantic fashion harking back to a rural idyllic notion of England. In the music of the hymn the vocal melody moves to resolution that does violence to the spirit of the words. This musical mistake is a indication of a wider problem – namely – that Parry does not make contact with the deeper meaning of the poem, he merely engages with it on a surface level. Jerusalem has elements of the patriotic to it but it also questions the possibility of the divine in the person of Jesus ever having visited English shores which is now troubled by “… dark Satanic Mills”. Blake contrasts the old mythological idea of England with the more troubled modern situation. Any sense of unease is erased in the hymn by the triumphalist tone of the music. Further, Parry chooses to use the same melody in each verse (as is conventional to the style of hymns) this subordinates the significance of the words to the melody as they become locked into a generic rhythmic and melodic structure. It turns what is a beautiful poem into a piece of quaint nonsense.
It is a sign of the cultural poverty that so many only know of Blake through the hymn Jerusalem and have no further understanding of his significance as an artist. Although has now attained the dubious status of being culturally acceptable which usual means that a neutered and watered down version of their legacy in enshrined in various “respectable” places such as the national curriculum. Almost all artists desire fame but many would surely be unhappy with the manner in which they become famous. It is my suspicion that Blake would certainly be dissatisfied with his popularity which is focused on a very narrow number of his works and has turned him into a symbol of Englishness, something he would have almost certainly resented.
Is this not the fate of some many great artists to be permanently misunderstood? Romeo and Juliet is usually thought of a celebration of romantic love when it may have in fact been a satire, an exhibition of Edvard Munch’s of art in London was well attended by upper class types, the very people Munch despised and frequently depicted negatively in his work.
Sadly, in the case of Blake’s poem the damage is done. It is my hope that this piece may change some minds but I am not optimistic about the possibility of a cultural reversal. The greats of the past can no longer speak for themselves behind the veil of death they must rely others to help them. To the open mind the spirit of the artist shines through the poem, no amount of lies can ever fully bury the truth.