William Blake, “Jerusalem”, and the Royal Wedding

Despite finding myself somewhat at variance with the British public mood today (although less so than my wife, currently cursing the fact that her beloved Radio 4 has been entirely given over to coverage of the wedding of William and Catherine Middleton), I have been amused by the amount of email alerts I have been receiving in recent days because of the inclusion of Blake’s “Jerusalem” in the order of service.

Thus, under the heading “Britain’s finest moment: The pomp and pageantry of the Royal Wedding in all its glory“, the Daily Mail reported this morning that “The hour and a half performance is set to include a range of ‘uplifting patriotic’ and ‘singalong’ numbers, such as Jerusalem as well as a Beatles medley.” Likewise, The Telegraph has a long piece on the Blake-Parry hymn with the amusing title “Music for a Sloane wedding (but none the worse for that)“. (Nor is this an entirely British – or, perhaps more accurately, English – phenomenon: various US publications such as The Washington Post and USA Today have carried articles on the royals’ choice of music.)

Damian Thompson’s Telegraph article is eminently readable, and offers a decent introduction to Parry’s music. Judging by the welter of posts to Twitter, it appears to have been a popular choice, most making observations along the line that “Jerusalem is a proper tune”, or “that hymn is epic!” My own favourite at the moment is comedian Dara O Brian’s summation that “Jerusalem is the Prod’s best choon.”

After the first performance of Parry’s hymn in 1916 at the Fight for Right movement in Queen’s Hall (it was not incorporated into Last Night of the Proms until 1953 – my thanks to Keri Davies for this correction, please see below), the hymn has frequently been used by royalists and English nationalists, particularly following Elgar’s more bombastic arrangement in 1922, but has also often been a favourite of the left, taken up the Jarrow marchers and the Suffragettes in the 1920s, as well as being adopted by the Labour party in the 1940s. (For a quick rundown of facts relating to the hymn, see “Ten things you should know about Jerusalem“.)

Today, however, I am currently playing a fairly regular “Jerusalem” game of my own: what would William Blake make of all this? This particular game is, of course, thoroughly anachronistic and utterly subjective. In some cases, such as its use by the British National Party, the result would, I think, be particularly easy to guess. At other extremes of his response, while it is harder to be sure how Blake would have responded to the use of “Jerusalem” I am fairly certain that he would have been pleased – Blake had little to say about sports outside of “The Ecchoing Green”, but I think he would have been proud to hear his words chosen as the anthem for the Commonwealth Games.

But a royal wedding? This is the writer who denounces George III as a “gloomy king” and tyrant in America a Prophecy, and ironically mocks Urizen’s proclamation of “One King, one God, one Law” in The [First] Book of Urizen. Blake’s writings are full of deprecations against kingship, a habit he shared with fellow republican Thomas Paine, for whom “the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise”. Similarly, although he denied in a letter to Thomas Butts in August 1803 that one word of sedition against the king had been spoken in his altercation with Scofield, it was not entirely surprising that Blake was singled out as the most likely radical in the the village of Felpham that year.

Before I make my own final choice, however, one unusual example of Blake’s royalist sentiment does need to be taken into account. In 1808, Blake published a dedication “To the Queen” as part of the edition of Blair’s The Grave issued by R.H. Cromek. Beginning with the rather beautiful lines, “The Door of Death is made of Gold, / That Mortal Eyes cannot behold”, the poem addresses Queen Charlotte as follows:

O Shepherdess of England’s Fold,
Behold this Gate of Pearl and Gold!
To dedicate to England’s Queen
The Visions that my Soul has seen,
And, by Her kind permission, bring
What I have borne on solemn Wing,
From the vast regions of the Grave,
Before Her Throne my Wings I wave;
Bowing before my Sov’reign’s Feet

Charlotte was, of course, the wife of the same George excoriated by Blake in his Lambeth Prophecies of the 1790s. Perhaps by 1808 Blake’s attitudes towards his sovereign had softened, tempered by the running stories of George III and in contrast to the harder heart of Shelley who could still denounce the “old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king” more than a decade later. Alternatively, perhaps Blake was simply eyeing a commercial opportunity, and was not averse to bowing and scraping this once if it helped him make some much desperately needed cash. Certainly Cromek viewed Blake’s verses as somewhat hypocritical and self-serving.

In general, I suspect that Blake is far from spinning in his grave today, though I would hope that my own projection of somewhat ironic amusement that this discarded and once-forgotten verse has become such an important piece of national iconography would not be too far from his own attitude. I have a suspicion that were he alive today as a young man, Blake would have been shaking his fist and throwing his shoe at the telly, but my guess as to the older man’s response is much less certain. With regard to his own words as part of Parry’s hymn it is true that – for better or for worse – there is very little else in the English musical canon that is seized upon by so many to represent the national mood.

http://youtu.be/BzBo1cjEmLA

What’s your opinion about Blake, “Jerusalem” and the Royal Wedding? Leave a comment below.