Alchemy, Rosicrucianism, and the Grail – Bruce Dickinson’s Take on “Jerusalem”

“Jerusalem” is mostly known as a hymn written by Hubert Parry (1916), a musical adaptation of the verses found in the introduction to William Blake’s Milton: a Poem (1804-11). There are numerous musical variations and re-recordings which are more or less faithful to the hymn. The version I am to discuss today, however, is radically different. And it was intended to be radically different. British singer and songwriter Bruce Dickinson wanted to show what he describes as the true character of “Jerusalem.” He rejects a patriotic reading in favour of mysticism. Dickinson interprets the verses named “Jerusalem” in his song of the same name (The Chemical Wedding, 1998) as part of the mystic tradition, informed by alchemy. (Dickinson, Autobiography, 269-270)

“Jerusalem” is hereby only a small part of a larger project. The Chemical Wedding is a concept album linking concepts of mysticism and occult, such as tarot cards (“The Tower” – the chorus consists exclusively of archetypes taken from the major arcana), or representations of the occult, such as the three witches in Macbeth (“Book of Thel”), with Blakean characters and thought (“Book of Thel”, “Gates of Urizen”) or even descriptions of Blake paintings (“Book of Thel”). The name derives from the third manifesto of the Rosicrucian Order, Chymische Hochzeit Christiani Rosencreutz Anno 1459 (The Chemical Wedding, 1616), a text heavily rooted in alchemy. But, the overarching theme holding it all together is the opposition of Los and Urizen, which Dickinson identifies as two antagonistic forces fighting for the soul of the artist. In this case Los embodies creativity, while Urizen stands for art industry. (cf. Dickinson, Autobiography, 269)

In case of “Jerusalem” he has partly re-written the stanzas and added his own lyrics to flesh out what he sees as its true character. (l. c. 269-270) Which leads us to the question: What is the true character of “Jerusalem?”

Dickinson indeed presents a rewriting of “Jerusalem” that is in no way patriotic. In a last twist, he questions the possibility of recreating “Jerusalem,” because the spatio-temporal surroundings are far from ideal (and this negative description refers to England). This gives “Jerusalem” a very pessimistic ending. Probably it is too late or impossible to recreate “Jerusalem” after all – a notion which sweeps away all heroic notions from the stanzas with on motion of the hand.

To grasp what might be the “true character” of the stanzas referred to as “Jerusalem,” I want to go back to their origin, to the preceding text in the introduction. Blake calls out to his fellow artists, to “painters,” “sculptures,” and “architects”. For once, they should leave aside the “slave[ry] of the Latin and Greek sword,” meaning the legacy of the ancient classics, Homer, Ovid, Plato, Cicero, in favour of the Bible. Secondly, they should put up a “mental fight” against “ignorant Hirelings.” The “fashionable Fools” try to rule the world of art by payment or advertisement. The artist, however, should ignore “Greek and Roman models” and live by “his true Imagination” of “the World of Eternity in which we shall live forever.” This clearly echoes what Dickinson describes as the never-ending dilemma of the artist, the dichotomy between artistic inspiration and commerce of the world of art. This world view is thus clearly something both artists share. But what does it have to do with “Jerusalem?”

The crucial point, in my eyes, is indeed “Jerusalem.” “Jerusalem” commonly refers to the New Jerusalem, or, Heavenly Jerusalem, as described in the Biblical chapter “Revelation.” It refers to the new city that will emerge after the Apocalypse (Rev. 22 NIV). In this case, however, we have a significant addition: the grail. Dickinson points out that the New Jerusalem will be rebuilt in England, but that it will contain the grail. This is physically impossible. As much as you try to built a Jerusalem in England, it cannot automatically contain the grail.

As “Jerusalem” as described here cannot refer to a material city, it is thus something spiritual, something immaterial. The narrator seeks to be able to lay his eyes upon an unspecified object again, which arguably refers to the New Jerusalem, by the removal of scales from his eyes. This invokes the Biblical story of Saulus who is transformed to Paulus by the falling of scales from his eyes to allow him see again. (Acts, 9 NIV) The scales in the song are supposed to be washed off by blood that rains from the sky, which in turn evokes the first trumpet of the Apocalypse. The first trumpet causes fire, hail, and blood to come from the sky. (Rev, 8:7 NIV) The seven trumpets of the Apocalypse precede the coming of the New Jerusalem. (Rev, 8-9, 11:15 NIV) In short, the first trumpet of the Apocalypse causes blood to fall from the sky which washes away the scales of the eyes of the narrator who can then see again, his surroundings in general and the New Jerusalem in particular. So far we are following a thoroughly Biblical narrative.

Yet, the narrator is not so much passively waiting, as fighting. The line in the third stanza “bring me my spear: the clouds unfold!” is exchanged for the exclamation that the narrator will not sleep until the clouds open and thus make it possible for Jerusalem to descend from the sky or for the narrator to see skyward. This change to an imperative not to rest until the task is accomplished adds urgency. The opening of the sky is something he has to fight for, as illustrated in Blake’s original text: “Bring me my bow of burning gold, bring me my arrow of desires, […] bring me my chariot of fire,” and “I will not cease from mental fight, Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand.” I argue, that this is where not only Rosicrucianism comes in, but also Arthurian myth as well as myths about the Knights Templar. It is the Knights Templar who sought the earthly, old Jerusalem. Lore and Mysticism often link them to the quest of quests, the search for the grail, which in turn also evokes the Arthurian knights. Sword, chariot of fire, (mental) fight are all elements which may point to chivalry and so, with addition of the crucial element of the grail, put “Jerusalem” firmly into the context of different discourses of knighthood.

The grail traditionally asks for a true hero, such as Indiana Jones in the rather recent example Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), who must pass several tests or fulfil certain tasks to prove his worthiness of the grail. Whereas these tasks are more like riddles for Jones, they were something as tricky as finding the right behavioural code at court, a question of political correctness, for Percival in the eponymous medieval epic written by Wolfram von Eschenbach (1200-1210). To find the grail is not only a quest in the meaning of physical adventure, it is indeed a process that asks for purification of the mind.

Another seeker who faces such riddles and trials to purify him and improve his wisdom is no other than Christian Rosenkreutz in Chymische Hochzeit. The third manifesto of the Rosicrucian Order is variously seen as an allegory, a text describing a spiritual vision, or a hoax. But, as pointed out above, it is safe to say that this text is heavily rooted in alchemy. Alchemy does not only seek the purification of metal, but also of the mind. Rosenkreutz excels so much in the tasks given that he wins the special favour of the king after the king’s resurrection. I am speculating here, but I assume that this is the king we encounter in the song. Winning the favour and respect of the king is of course another ideal of knighthood, together with carrying king and queen in their hearts.

I think we are thus left with several possible readings of these metaphors of chivalry. In the first reading, the chivalry harks back to the quest of Rosenkreutz and the various knights who seek enlightenment in one way or another. In a second reading, the fight is a fight for Jerusalem. In a third reading, enlightenment and Jerusalem are probably even the same. In the end, we can say that the narrator has adapted the mindset of a knight and is actively fighting to rebuild “Jerusalem”.

I think, that this fight is a metaphor for opposition to conventional ways of thinking and resistance against oppression and suppression of the free development of the mind. The knight-figure must seek his own enlightenment and purification. Here we go back to the beginning to the dichotomy between Los and Urizen as embodiments of inspiration and art industry. If I read “Jerusalem” in its original context, meaning the preceding text of the introduction, these restrictions refer to the aforementioned prescriptions by the art industry. The artist ought to follow the poetic imagination which Blake calls the “Eternal World in which we will live.” This is an accurate description of the New Jerusalem, the city the narrator seeks to see again. This complies with what Dickinson describes as Blake’s “anti-materialistic message.” (Dickinson, Autobiography, 270)

“Jerusalem” is thus the “Eternal World” in the future to come, the paradisiacal city after the Apocalypse, and the poetic imagination alike. (I know, I am claiming here that Jerusalem, the city/person, takes the place of Los, but stay with me.) The last line in Dickinson’s song refers to a destroying of chains – and these chains, in turn, tie indeed the city / person Jerusalem “in the Dens of Babylon” (plate 39). This later quote from Milton follows the recording of the song as a spoken quote, tying the somewhat paratextual verses from the introduction to the body of the work. Now, “Jerusalem” stands for four different objects: poetic imagination, “Eternal World”, city, and person. I argue that these chains are the one thing to be fought; the knight-figure must indeed free Jerusalem. He is to free “Jerusalem” from the chains and thereby recreate it.

So what is indeed Blake’s “true Jerusalem?” I do not think that we can ever truly answer this (as long as we don’t put up a séance), but I say that Dickinsons reading of “Jerusalem” as representing the true artists’ minds is closer to Blake’s original text when compared with the context they originate in than every attempt to use “Jerusalem” as a second national anthem.

Live Performance
See a Live Performance of Bruce Dickinson’s “Jerusalem” featuring Ian Anderson in Canterbury Cathedral:
“Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull with Bruce Dickinson – Jerusalem.” Youtube.com, uploaded by Jethro Tull & Ian Anderson. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YTgZatpr1L8 (21.12.2011) [09.09.19]

Sources

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  • Blake, William. Milton: a Poem. The William Blake Archivehttp://www.blakearchive.org/work/biblicalwc (2017) [09.09.2019]
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  • Whittaker, Jason. “‘Jerusalem’ Set to Music: A Selected Discography.” Blake/an Illustrated Quarterly. Vol. 52, no. 4, 2019, n. p.
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