Blakespotting: Media responses to “Jerusalem” and the Royal Wedding

Now that Prince William and Kate Middleton are finishing their holiday in the Seychelles, this seems a suitable moment to follow up my opinion piece on the use of the William Blake/Hubert Parry hymn during the wedding, in this case looking at some of the responses to the hymn in the media. Over the past year, I’ve been trawling the web collecting all manner of various references to Blake as they occur in newspapers, blogs and web sites, but the week covering the end of April and beginning of May resulted in an explosion of allusions and here I’ll offer a preliminary summary of the types of response. This cannot hope to be comprehensive but instead will concentrate on some of the most unusual/ interesting articles.

The vast majority of these can be summarised along the lines of “wasn’t it a lovely day” – which seems generally to have been the response of many readers of my previous post. Typical of the straight news stories was that carried by the Daily Mail, which merely made mention of the singing of “Jerusalem” and instead was taken with the headline: “24million tune in to see Royal Wedding as Facebook updates 74 times a SECOND during ceremony”. Certainly as a media event this was a particularly vibrant affair, and similar stories were carried by major newspapers and broadcasters in the UK as well as around the world. Plenty of articles and blog posts also conveyed local news about various street parties (such as the one in Cambridge where a local wrote the words to “Jerusalem” on her window), while plenty of people recorded personal blog posts celebrating their own responses, often bringing back pleasant memories of their own appreciation of Blake, as with A Woman of No Importance. Perhaps the most extreme example of international adulation came from the Times of Malta, which simply oozed with joy over the British sense of “precision and elegance”.

More interesting was the much smaller number of articles that sought to grind a particular axe with regard to the choice of hymn – and it is significant that “Jerusalem” attracted a great deal more attention than the other songs and hymns, and alongside the royal wedding itself the Blake-Parry hymn was one of the main trending topics on Twitter that day, reported by The Telegraph as “Jerusalem triumphant“. The Mail, again, made the pertinent observation that Blake’s words were perhaps an odd choice for a wedding: “Blake is a controversial figure for Anglican wedding ceremonies since he not only rejected 19th century religious orthodoxy but was also a critic of traditional marriage and an advocate of free love.”

Not a few papers decided to make sly comments on the presence of Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP for whom, according to The Scotsman, the “patriotic hymn… held no fears”. By and large, however, the mainstream right of centre press in the UK commented on the solidity of the choice, as in The Telegraph which observed that “The ancient walls of Westminster Abbey will reverberate to the sound of some of the most popular hymns written for a congregation to sing”.

The left of centre British press seemed a little unsure of itself: uncertain as to whether it should mock such a genuinely popular event, The Guardian decided to lob a rotten egg at British Prime Minister David Cameron instead, observing that his “patriotism was hyperventilating”. Greater opprobrium – as well as some truly great if bizarre rhetoric – was reserved for right wing media in the USA. My particular favourite, and one worth reading for all the wrong reasons, was a polemic by Hal G.P. Colebatch entitled “Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ – Forget It!”. Taking issue Mary Beard’s lament that the great and good of Britain don’t seem to know the words of the hymn, he launches into a tirade as to why they shouldn’t bother, some of which is worth citing at length surely because of its hyperbole:

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..

It is difficult to know where to begin with such a wrong-headed piece of writing, although I was greatly entertained and also reminded that “Corporeal Friends are Spiritual Enemies”. Less vitriolic, but perhaps more heartfelt, was the letter by Alexander S. Waugh in the Aberdeen Press and Journal, decrying references to “Jerusalem” as an English national hymn when the events referred to by Blake obviously took place during Celtic occupation of the greater part of the mainland.

At the other end of the spectrum, though equally bizarre as Colebatch’s piece in its own way, was an article by Brad MacDonald in The Trumpet. Asking, “Did you see God at the Royal Wedding?” (did he steal Tony Blair’s invite?), MacDonald strove to hit a note of wide-eyed wonder and astonishment at the fact that “nearly one third of mankind shared a moment” (very much his italics). Apparently, in “a world yearning for answers, for solutions” to economic crisis, failing families and “the yawning poverty of faith and hope”, all hope was to be found in Kate Middleton’s dress and Blake’s hymn, in which the message to be found the story of “His Second Coming at which time the headquarters of God’s Kingdom shall be established in Jerusalem!” And here was me thinking it was to take our mind off government failings.

A more common type of cynicism, again from the US, was to be found on the New York Review of Books by Martin Filler. Entitled “Land of Hopeless Glory“, it made the wry – and not entirely unfair – observation that while Britannia may no longer rule the waves, “the British Crown possesses an undeniable genius for staging rituals that may seem to date from time immemorial but which for the most part were concocted in the early twentieth century.” Similarly, Counter Punch asked if we would not be better served by a royal TV channel, streaming out state events to a worldwide audience via YouTube.

We can but wait.

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