Once again Blake’s “Jerusalem” is in the news. While the famous hymn is incredibly popular at weddings in particular, it appears that so many ministers are banning it that the Church of England has issued new guidelines stating that it is neither too nationalistic nor too militaristic. This is one that returns every so often, and for the past couple of decades the Church has had a problem with “Jerusalem” – something that is not entirely surprising considering Blake’s own attitude to organised religion and, unfortunately, the hymn’s occasional but pernicious associations with the far right.
While the nation debates (once again) whether it is suitable for banns or only to be banned, here are ten things about the poem to help you make up your own mind:
- The stanzas beginning “And did those feet…” were, as is widely known, originally published as part of a Preface to Blake’s epic poem Milton. During his lifetime Blake only printed four copies of this poem – but the Preface only appears in two of the three copies published in 1811 and was omitted in the version from 1818. While it may have become his most famous poem, Blake apparently had other ideas.
- The feet in question are widely assumed to be those of Christ, drawing on a legend that Joseph of Arimathea brought him to this country. William of Malmesbury, writing in the twelfth century, was the first to suggest that Joseph was sent as an apostle to the British Isles, and this snowballed into the mythology that he had previously brought the young Jesus with him while trading. It is worth pointing out that while Blake (in Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion in particular) does seem to have thought this at the very least a useful starting point for his own mythology, in his lyric he questions rather than states whether Jesus came here.
- The phrase “Chariot of fire” is taken from 2 Kings 6:17 where God protects Elisha from the Syrians: “And Elisha prayed, and said, LORD, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see. And the LORD opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.” Interestingly, when the King of Israel seeks to destroy the Syrians, Elisha replies: “Thou shalt not smite them: wouldest thou smite those whom thou hast taken captive with thy sword and with thy bow? set bread and water before them, that they may eat and drink, and go to their master.” (22)
- There is a possibility that the “dark Satanic Mills” were inspired by the Albion Flour Mill which employed a steam engine built by James Watt and burnt down in 1791. Milton, however, is full of imagery of mills, as when the Bard who sings the song that opens the epic poem describes how “the Starry Mills of Satan / Are built beneath the Earth” which are used to grind down the souls of Albion’s children.
- While Sir Hubert Parry famously set Blake’s words to music in 1916, this version is rarely heard. In 1922, Edward Elgar scored Parry’s simpler melody for orchestra, providing it with a much grander and ostentatious sweep and it is this version that is heard at Last Night of the Proms and elsewhere.
- “Jerusalem” was adopted by the National Association of Women’s Institutes in 1924, having been sung by Suffragettes during the 1920s. In the same year as Parry’s composition, Bertrand Russell, a member of the Fabian Society invoked Blake’s vision when describing opposition to conscription during World War I, leading to its popular acceptance by the Labour Party alongside the Red Flag, a campaign slogan of the 1945 election being that Labour would “build a new Jerusalem”.
- The hymn seems to have been particularly popular during the 1960s, appearing in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), Privilege (1967) and If… (1968), where the tensions between Blake’s revolutionary attitudes and the hymn’s adoption as an anthem of the establishment made it de rigueur as a motif for any director concerned to explore the limitations of a little Englander mindset.
- At the other end of the political spectrum, the British National Party has made a concerted effort to adopt “Jerusalem” as its own since 2000, when Nick Griffin sang it alongside former members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Friends of the BNP in Arlington, Virginia. After being charged with incitement to racial hatred in 2005, Griffin led BNP supporters in a rendition of the hymn outside a magistrates court in Leeds.
- The CofE’s current problems with ministers banning “Jerusalem” is nothing new: in 1996 the Church of Scotland elected to have it removed from its hymnals because of the content of Blake’s words, and in the same year Canon Donald Gray, chaplain to the Queen, refused to allow it to be sung at a memorial service in St Margaret’s.
- In sport, it was adopted as the anthem of the England cricket team after 2004 and is to be used by Team England in the Commonwealth Games from 2010 onwards. Its history as a football song has been somewhat trickier: Fat Les recorded it as the team anthem for the Euro 2000 games, but England’s poor performance and rioting by English fans at Charleroi tarnished its associations.