From the Collection: A Paradise of English Poetry and Lyra Sacra

These two anthologies, A Paradise of English Poetry and Lyra Sacra, were edited in the late nineteenth century by the clergyman and poet, Henry Charles Beeching (1859-1919). Beeching was educated at Balliol College, Oxford, and began work in a Liverpool parish after taking orders in 1882; he published his first collection, Love in Idleness, in 1883.

As with many Victorians in the decades following publication of Alexander Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake, Beeching took an interest in Blake’s poetry, and included selections in his anthology A Paradise of English Poetry, published in 1893. From the 1870s onwards, Blake’s poetry became increasingly popular and his lyrics in particular started to appear in a number of collections. This particular anthology reprints Blake’s stanzas from Milton, ‘And did those feet’, as the second poem in his section on ‘Patriotism’, while the first comprises a compilation of extracts from Shakespeare:

O England, model to thy inward greatness,
Like little body with a mighty heart!

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune.

This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror.
Come the three corners of the world in arms
And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true. (A Paradise of English Poetry, p.204)

Cobbled together from extracts taken from the Prologue to Act 2 of Henry V, the final comments of Phillip the Bastard from Act V, scene 7 of the History of King John and, unsurprisingly, John of Gaunt’s “scepter’d isle” speech from Richard II, this looks to all intents and purposes the kind of set piece that Shakespeare should have delivered but never actually did. Indeed, Beeching’s alterations deliberately falsify Gaunt’s speech delivered just before a death that he welcomes, replacing his sad observation that “England, that was wont to conquer others,/Hath made a shameful conquest of itself” (Richard II, 2.1, ll.66-7) with the vainglorious assertion that instead “England never did, nor never shall,/Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror” (King John, 5.7, ll.118-9). That Beeching was obviously affected by Blake’s verses is also indicated by his inclusion of the poem in his next collection, Lyra Sacra: A Book of Religious Verse, which appeared in print two years later and included the stanzas in the following form:

The New Jerusalem
By William Blake (1757–1827)

I

ENGLAND, awake! awake! awake!
Jerusalem thy sister calls!
Why wilt thou sleep the sleep of death,
And close her from thy ancient walls?

Thy hills and valleys felt her feet
Gently upon their bosoms move:
Thy gates beheld sweet Zion’s ways;
Then was a time of joy and love.

And now the time returns again:
Our souls exult; and London’s towers
Receive the Lamb of God to dwell
In England’s green and pleasant bowers.

II

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountain green?
And was the Holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pasture 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 England’s green and pleasant land. (Lyra Sacra, p.199)

Alongside some epigrams and lines from Auguries of Innocence, these two poems – taken from Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion and Milton A Poem – are most interesting because they represent the first time the title ‘Jerusalem’ is applied to Blake’s most famous stanzas. As an active editor of Milton’s works (indeed, Geoffrey Keynes published a version of Beeching’s edition of Paradise Lost with the addition of Blake’s illustrations in 1926 for the Nonesuch Press), Beeching was probably attracted to Blake’s prophetic book because of the Romantic’s clear invocation of the epic poet. As with most Victorian editors, Beeching took considerable liberties with Blake’s work, polishing it as he saw fit to accord more agreeably with Victorian tastes. Yet while he was critical of Blake’s ideas and the style of the prophetic books, nonetheless he admired the lyric poetry enough to reproduce a considerable quantity of it during his publishing career. More importantly, his slightly cavalier attitude to what the original author intended was to have immensely important consequences for the later reception of the stanzas beginning ‘And did those feet’: by conflating lines from Milton with those from Jerusalem, Beeching felt justified in renaming the poem ‘The New Jerusalem’, paving the way for the much more famous title by which the poem would be known in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Proving a direct link to Parry is problematic, but the indirect connection is compelling. Beeching was related by marriage to Robert Bridges, the poet laureate whose publication of The Spirit of Man provided Parry with the text for his setting, and Henry Walford Davies, Parry’s former pupil and the conductor for the first ever performance in 1916 of what would become known as ‘Jerusalem’ set both ‘And did those feet’ and the lines from Shakespeare to music in 1907/8. Furthermore, Parry’s final composition before his death – entitled simply ‘England’ – took as its lyrics the same extracts from Shakespeare which Beeching had placed alongside the stanzas from Milton. As such, A Paradise of English Poetry and Lyra Sacra remain two important, if forgotten, texts in the genealogy of what would become the most famous setting of Blake’s verse to music.

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