As I get back into the swing of things with all things Blakean, so the following exchange popped up on Twitter:
For the past few days, while searching through various bits and pieces to share with people, inevitably I’ve also come across ones like the following:
There are plenty of these. Ah, as George Orwell nearly wrote, there’s never so fine a sight as old maids cycling to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning, past the placard-waving Little Englanders wishing to keep the foreigners out.
Generally, I simply ignore tweets such as the second, but (as so often happens with invocations of the Blake/Parry hymn) my blood gently simmers when I see “Jerusalem” being so employed. In the interest of a little fact checking, I’d just like to offer the following brief corrective to those who see Blake’s words at least as a support for xenophobic nationalism (and, yes, I do realise that impugns many who have more solid arguments regarding leaving the EU, but – to repeat my title – don’t invoke “Jerusalem” to support Brexit).
First, it should be noted that Blake wrote the famous stanzas from Milton, later set to music by Parry, in 1804, including them in his Preface to that epic poem. On the remote chance that there’s someone who hasn’t heard those words on this side of the planet in the past thirty seconds, here they are again:
And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands 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 Englands green & pleasant Land.
(From David Erdman, The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake, pages 95-6)
I shall not engage here in a complex and (for me at least) fascinating discussion of what those words could mean, but I simply wish to point out that in the January of the year he wrote those words Blake was tried for sedition at Chichester. You can read a very good account of it on the Blake Society web site, but here I’ll just repeat the charge that was reported by the Sussex Advertiser:
William Blake, an engraver at Felpham, was tried on a charge exhibited against him by two soldiers, for having uttered seditious and treasonable expressions, such as ‘D—n the King, d—n all his subjects, d—n his soldiers, they are all slaves; when Bonaparte comes, it will be cut-throat for cut-throat, and the weakest must go the wall; I will help him; &c. &c.’
Now, Blake was found not guilty of this and other remarks, and it is clear that the soldier involved in the altercation with the engraver at his cottage in Felpham was making things up. However, it has never ceased to amaze me that of all the people in the village that the soldier came up against, the two with the most radical sympathies were William Blake and his wife, Catherine. Statements such as “the weakest must go the wall” are completely antithetical to Blake’s notions, but while he seemed no fan of Napoleon (writing in his commentary on Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims, “Let us teach Buonaparte & whomsoever else it may concern That it is not Arts that follow & attend upon Empire[s] but Empire[s] that attends upon & follows [wherever Art leads]”) he remained for all his life profoundly influenced by the promise of the French Revolution. No turncoat he, unlike Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey and plenty of others.
If there is a slim possibility that the lines “And did those feet” were written by a shamefaced Blake, cowed into demonstrating his nationalism because he was so nearly caught out, even the most cursory reading of Milton and Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion would show that to be false. In the Preface in which the stanzas appear, he inveighs against those who would “for ever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War”. Now, it is worth pointing out that Blake had little time for university academics such as myself (who he saw as warmongers as much as anyone), and the contrarian nature of a man who believed that “without Contraries is no progression” could easily be invoked by UKIP-ers and Brexiters who see themselves as bravely fighting the consensus – and, hell, when banks, foreign premiers, and just about the rest of the world seems to line up against you, it’s hard to suggest that you are doing anything other than fighting the consensus. I should also point out that, while disagreeing with the Brexit position, I really am not a person who believes that something is right because everyone appears to say it is right. All I ask is don’t bloody use Blake to fight your corner.
William Blake, as anyone with more than a passing interest in him knows, wrote a lot about Albion. In Jerusalem he writes that “All things Begin & End in Albions Ancient Druid Rocky Shore”. Actually, at a glance that seems a case for staying out the EU, does it not? And if you’re a druid, there’s probably a lot to go on there if you’re thinking of your constituency (“Those bloody Roman bureaucrats, stopping our human sacrifices and all that. Don’t they know it’s part of our culture?”) But let’s have a look at some of the other things that Blake writes about Albion.
Every ornament of perfection, and every labour of love,
In all the Garden of Eden, & in all the golden mountains
Was become an envied horror, and a remembrance of jealousy:
And every Act a Crime, and Albion the punisher & judge. (Jerusalem, plate 28)
Or how about this:
Albion groans, he sees the Elements divide before his face.
And England who is Brittannia divided into Jerusalem & Vala…
The Atlantic Continent sunk round Albions cliffy shore
And the Sea poured in amain upon the Giants of Albion (plate 32)
For Blake, Albion’s fall comes when he is separated from the rest of the world – not just Europe but America as well. In contrast, the golden age is described thus:
Thy Sons came to Jerusalem with gifts, she sent them away
With blessings on their hands & on their feet, blessings of gold,
And pearl & diamond: thy Daughters sang in her Courts:
They came up to Jerusalem; they walked before Albion
In the Exchanges of London every Nation walkd
And London walkd in every Nation mutual in love & harmony
Albion coverd the whole Earth, England encompassd the Nations,
Mutual each within others bosom in Visions of Regeneration;
Jerusalem coverd the Atlantic Mountains & the Erythrean,
From bright Japan & China to Hesperia France & England. (plate 24)
Now, there is much, much more that I could bore with in my anger on this subject. Actually, the one thing I won’t suggest here is that Blake would be an advocate for the actual European Union – it is far, far too small for his vision of universal Albion which shares its life with all humanity from China and Japan to France, England and the Americas (and. lest we head off in completely the wrong direction – he was no imperialist, the thought of which filled him with horror). But with that in mind I would ask, as politely as my title allows, for anyone who sings or plays “Jerusalem” thinking that Blake would love to kick out all the foreigners to just stop it now.