In 2005, Patti Smith released a well-received book of poetry, Auguries of Innocence, that clearly indicated her affections for the work of William Blake. Some thirteen years later, the influence of Blake is once more evident in her latest collection, a series of seven prose-poems entitled The New Jerusalem, a handsome volume that has been released by the Nexus Institute in a bilingual, English and Dutch edition.
As well as the poems themselves, the book includes a series of illustrations, some of them reproductions of Smith’s own work such as her silkscreen print of South Tower Copper. The Nexus Library series (of which this is a part) has been an eclectic mix, including works by Mario Vargas Llosa and Garry Kasparov as well as Smith’s latest offering, and the images and texts are preceded by an essay written by Rob Riemen, founder of the Nexus Institute and a longtime admirer of Smith’s. It is his introduction that offers the clearest link to Blake as he recounts a meeting the two of them had in New York:
“I’ve just started on a poem that’ll be called The New Jerusalem.”
“The new Jerusalem! Like the prophesy at the end of The Revelation of St. John in the New Testament? Or like the visionary poem Jerusalem by William Blake?” I knew what a passion she had for that eighteenth-century poet and painter.
The immediate cause of the poem is actually the Trump administration’s move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem and thus the political act of recognising the “universal” city as the capital of Israel. Regarding literary influences, Smith herself goes on to list a long line, including Shelley, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Rimbaud, Andrei Tarkovsky, Allen Ginsberg – and the one that surprises Riemen the most – Jesus Christ. Indeed, the most interesting aspect of the introduction is Smith’s insistence of the interlinking of art and religion. She cites Wilde’s De Profundis to argue that Christ was an artist, and though it is a little more oblique she certainly knows of Blake’s repeated references to Christianity as art. This becomes part of Rieman’s argument, that we have replaced concepts such as soul, forgiveness, God and creation with innovation, popularity and consumption, and that all art – not merely that of the sixties and seventies – is an art of counter-culture. He cites the line from Blake’s Laocoön, “Art Degraded, Imagination Denied, War Governed the Nations”, but with regard to Patti Smith’s ideas he could also have quoted: “A Poet a Painter a Musician an Architect: the Man Or Woman who is not one of these is not a Christian”.
Riemens links this very Blakean conception of the Christian art of imagination to a counter-culture, operating both against the religious right of contemporary America but also current political trends of Trump’s America, which he mournfully compares to the tribulations of Lincoln, a party linked by name only across the centuries. Despite this somewhat melancholy end to the introductory essay, however, begin with a much more powerful tone: “Matter of Time”, the opening piece, is redolent of Ginsberg and, to my eyes, Yeats as well as Blake, as in the following passage:
The new time slouched then accelerated, visceral, chaotic, yet soon governed with a terrible lucidity. God usurped by Goal. Chemical commerce the prime directive. Cultivators initiated an unremittent engineering of nature. Controllers enforced a neo-naturalization, devoid of charity or human quality. Mercenary priests devised the moral center. Iron and steel rose from the face of the holy city, the earth shuddered, and it was holy no more.
The accompanying image, South Tower Copper, indicates that there is something about this passage that is explicitly imagist, of a tower rising in the literal city of Jerusalem to form the new embassy. At the same time, it is also clearly visionary, and while some of this verse literally sticks in the mouth as I read it (“enforced a neo-naturalization devoid of charity”) this is, perhaps, appropriate to the language of Ulro. Although not quite the howl of Ginsberg’s poem, there is something about this opening passage that is very reminiscent of his accusations against Moloch:
Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!
The first poem is also a retelling of Blake’s account, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, as to the origins of religion. Originally the preserve of ancient poets, who “animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged & numerous senses could perceive”, this inspired form of worship was soon abstracted into a system and “thus began Priesthood”. For Smith, modern priests are consumer culture, automation and mechanisation which drives us along as part of alienated modernity.
It is against such mechanisation, the Moloch of Ginsberg or Blake’s Ulro, that she is clearly writing her new Christian art, inspired very much by those two poets as well as the other artists and writers identified by Rieman. Thus in the second piece, “What manner of herald flies over”, offers a visionary account of a Caravaggio, not explicitly identified but probably his “Decapitation of St John the Baptist”, the marking of an end of an epoch of art that is followed by a scene of literal sacrifice of cattle: it is the institution of priesthood, but also – via it’s title, “Triumph and Deceit” – a mocking reference to the politics of the 45th President of the United States, who sacrifices truth in the service of power.
The style of all these and the remaining pieces – “The Alchemical Sovereign”, “Prophecy’s Lullaby”, “The Cup” and “A Time of Gifts” – is highly allusive. That it has its roots in a specific political event is not immediately evident without Rieman’s introduction, and these could be read as a series of narrative images that are frequently hauntingly beautiful in their simplicity:
In a dream, a woman gave me a small object, wrapped in brown tissue. It was a cup, delicate, near transparent, created long ago by one who had aspired to transform mute material into gold… He saw carnage and famine and the bleached arms of power. He saw himself shackled to futile ambition. None shall enlighten, he cried, save a nature I shall never know.
Throughout all the poems, allusions to Blake are frequently as delicate as the porcelain cup that Smith holds, but they are very much in evidence. As “Prophecy’s Lullaby”, drawing both on Blake’s famous declarations of prophecy and his Songs of Innocence, is especially redolent of his aphoristic style in works such as The Marriage and Auguries of Innocence. It is also a key to The New Jerusalem, a series of songs that are intended to revive that lost idea of a soul through the act of prophecy. The collection ends with Smith collecting up her writing tools as a voice inside her tells her that she is (re)born, a voice of “inexhaustible good”.
The following is an edited version of a talk, “Blake and Big Data”, given at the English Literature in the World: From Manuscript to Digital ¦ New Pathways conference at the University of Lisbon, 9 May, 2018. It is very much a work in progress regarding some circumstances in which quantitative approaches to literary data may help us understand aspects of the reception of Blake’s works dealing with the history of references to Blake’s poem, “And did those feet”, which was set to music as “Jerusalem” by Charles Hubert Parry in 1916. Originally, the talk was intended to cover a wider range of data sets I have started to accumulate with reference to William Blake (some of which would have more fully justified the epithet of “big data”, whatever that may be).
The stimulus for both the talk and this post has been the work I’ve undertaken over the past year on the Blake-Parry hymn as a history of that text, stretching back to Blake’s original composition of the stanzas included in the Preface to Milton a Poem until the EU Referendum in 2016, with a focus on the century since Parry set Blake’s words to music. While working on the book, I kept a spreadsheet with references collated from written texts and audio recordings in particular, eventually amassing a dataset comprising some 600 entries. The data collected offers a sufficient series of examples to make me think differently about ways of reading the hymn, and this post is intended as a preliminary working through of some of the theoretical issues surrounding the employment of digital techniques in the field of reception studies and digital humanities.
Any discussion of quantitative methods with regard to Blake’s work carries an intrinsic warning, for Blake himself admonished readers against an over-reliance on what he called “Druidical Mathematical Proportion of Length Bredth Highth” (Milton 4.27, E98). As we shall see later, an important reaction against recent statistical analyses have included what are often loosely dubbed “romantic” oppositions: actually, more often than not this is intended as a derogatory term, but as a Romanticist I believe there are actually some valid criticisms against a reliance on quantitative methods (as opposed to, say, subjective phenomenological readings) that should always be borne in mind. My own use of statistical analyses is intended as a practical method that – in what are actually very limited circumstances – may help us build a picture of some aspects of the reception of Blake’s work. Blake scholars have relied on datasets for the best part of a century now: Geoffrey Keynes’s 1921 A Bibliography of William Blake included a list of Blake publications, which was then supplemented and superseded in 1969 by G. E. Bentley’s Blake Books and its various supplements in book form and as articles in Blake, An Illustrated Quarterly. Recently, I have been writing much more about settings of Blake to music, and Donald Fitch’s 1990 book, Blake Set to Music has become an indispensable reference work.
The subtitle of the talk was “Literary data as a challenge to literary theory”, invoking a text that has long been important to my own reception work, Hans Robert Jauss’s essay “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory” (the original German text of which was published in 1970 and then translated into English in 1982). Jauss was writing at a time when periodization of literature was (rightly) falling into decline, but his own approach – which overlapped with elements of what would become fashionably known as New Historicism, as well as the materialist techniques of figures such as Jürgen Habermas – was a significant step in reconsidering how an audience’s reception of literary texts changed as the “horizon of expectations” evolved over time. Jauss offers a particularly compelling example of this with regard to the diverging receptions of Ernest-Aimé Feydeau, who published his literary sensation Fanny in 1857, the same year as Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. As Jauss observes, Fanny went through thirteen editions in one year while Flaubert’s formal innovations initially found little success. Though Madame Bovary had few admirers at first, however, they were tenacious, passing on their passion for Flaubert to each new generation so that eventually it was Fanny which came to seem the outmoded novel.
Today, we have a fairly simple way to test Jauss’s hypothesis, which certainly seems correct on an intuitive level. Google’s Ngram Viewer, which as of 2015 had scanned more than 5 million texts, allows a rapid search of certain phrases. Entering the search terms Ernest Feydeau and Gustave Flaubert certainly seems to support Jauss’s explanation of audience reception of the two authors:
As can be seen above, during the 1860s and early 1870s, it is Feydeau who is referenced more, and yet from 1875 this situation reverses so that, some twenty years after the publication of Madame Bovary and Fanny, it is Flaubert who eclipses the reputation of his friend as Feydeau lapses into obscurity by the end of the century. It should be noted, however, that Jauss’s hypothesis requires a degree of refinement, particularly when compared to the data from the French corpus:
Jauss’s reading which suggests a transformation of the horizon of expectations, so that the bestseller Feydeau is overtaken by the formal experimenter Flaubert does not seem to apply: almost from the very beginning Flaubert appears to match Feydeau, although as in the English corpus there is an explosion of references from the mid 1870s onwards. It should be noted immediately that the above charts, which indicate references to both authors in various journals and books, are no indication of sales and so this measure of popularity is not included. It is very likely that the trial of Flaubert and the publishers of La Review de Paris which serialised Madame Bovary meant that there were many more references to the author than could be expected from the number of actual readers, but this is a hypothesis that is difficult to test and – something of a running feature throughout this blog post – indicates how cautious we must be when employing quantitative techniques.
An entirely non-cautious (and increasingly notorious) example of the appeal of Big Data came from Chris Anderson in 2008 in an article for Wired entitled, “The End of Theory”. In it he observed that:
At the petabyte scale, information is not a matter of simple three- and four-dimensional taxonomy and order but of dimensionally agnostic statistics. It calls for an entirely different approach, one that requires us to lose the tether of data as something that can be visualized in its totality. It forces us to view data mathematically first and establish a context for it later… Petabytes allow us to say: “Correlation is enough.”
Anderson, who frequently makes grandiose statements in order to attract attention has been refuted carefully and methodically by scientific researchers such as Sabina Leonelli, who demonstrates how Big Data is almost inevitably a highly selected phenomena with results drawn from social, political and economic factors, and Fulvio Mazzochi, who shows how petabytes of data enhance the testing of hypothesis rather than replaces them.
This post, then, has no real intention of arguing that the end of theory is nigh after Anderson, although some of my work in recent years has been much more influenced by that of Franco Moretti, who made a particularly forceful argument for rethinking methodologies in the digital humanities nearly twenty years ago now in his spectacularly titled “The Slaughterhouse of Literature”:
But of course there is a problem here. Knowing two hundred novels is already difficult. Twenty thousand? How can we do it, what does knowledge mean in this new scenario? One thing for sure: it cannot mean the very close reading of very few texts – secularized theology, really (‘canon’!) – that has radiated from the cheerful town of New Haven over the whole field of literary studies. A larger literary history requires other skills: sampling; statistics; work with series, titles, concordances, incipits – and perhaps also the ‘trees’ that I discuss in this essay. (Reprinted in Distant Reading, 2013, p.208)
In Graphs, Maps, Trees, Moretti argues that the use of quantitative methods allows us, by viewing “fewer elements” (i.e. individual texts), to have a “sharper sense of their overall interconnection”. Actually, a fairly careful rereading of Graphs, Maps, Trees for this conference led me to have a greater appreciation for what are, actually, quite moderate claims by Moretti: unlike Anderson, he is not attempting to make grandiose claims for the end of literary theory but seeking to demonstrate some noticeable trends within literary history. That said, his use of evolutionary theory as a way “to think about very large systems” has led towards a degree of “scientism”, a false application of scientific method in the humanities where, frankly, it is harder to replicate and generalise data – even more so than in the social sciences. A more extreme version of this is, for me, to be found in the work of Joseph Carroll who, in papers such as “Three Scenarios for Literary Darwinism” (2010) seeks to excise the vagaries of postmodernism from literary theory.
The tendency towards scientism in the work of theorists such as Moretti has been cogently critiqued by Tom Eyers, who argues that the tendency towards neo-positivism in Moretti (and also Stephen Ramsay’s influential Reading Machines) results in an “uncritical positivism at the very moment that [it] affirms an apparently critical historicism.” I particularly like Eyers’ critique because he shows an awareness of many of the advantages of the digital humanities, whether preserving decaying archives or deploying new data mining techniques within scholarship, while distancing himself both from broadly neo-Romantic, uncritically aestheticist objections to digital humanities and the equally uncritical techno-evangelism. I do not necessarily subscribe to his adoption of Althusser as a model for a new “speculative” formalism that can synthesise history and form, but he makes many pertinent observations regarding Moretti’s process that have influenced my own thinking, most notably the warning against assuming a uniform model of literary consumption to generate data from distant reading. Individual subjectivity never disappears, and Moretti’s taboo against close reading has been especially unhelpful to my own analyses of “Jerusalem”, where it is precisely the phenomenological, individual, subjective interpretation of the text that has produced a significant bifurcation in the reception history of the text in terms of political reception by left and right.
Actually, my reservations regarding Moretti’s model stem less from what he does explicitly in works such as Graphs, Maps and Trees and Distant Reading than the reductive tendency that emerges in so-called “literary Darwinism”. While a potentially contentious response towards this would, in my opinion, follow Deleuze’s consideration of empiricism (after Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead) as the conditions for the production of novelty rather than a reflection of the “real” world, untangling that important thread will take this blog post in a much more convoluted direction. Here I shall simply observe a tendency in some of the social sciences, including communication studies, to employ “postpostivist” methodologies. As Allen, Titsworth and Hunt observe in their handbook on Quantitative Research in Communication:
A key component of the scientific method is verification and absolutism – that through replication, theories become “verified” and accepted as universally true. Although application of the scientific method to the study of communication and other social sciences was very popular at one time, more contemporary theory embraces a postpostivist approach that does not rely on absolute truth. From the postpositivist perspective, theories are assumed to be good descriptions of human behaviour, but exceptions are expected because of unique circumstances and the tendency for some unpredictability to be present in any situation. (p.8)
As such, a postpositivist approach to the data I am using to describe some of the reception of the Blake-Parry hymn “Jerusalem” follows this understanding: the data considered below is far from complete and exceptions are to be expected. It is a tool for a heuristics of understanding rather than any attempt at a complete hermeneutics.
Methods for collecting data
One thing became absolutely clear when preparing for the paper in Lisbon: although I have generally tended not to use quantitative techniques in my own work (one exception being for a chapter in William Blake and the Digital Humanities), I have worked with a considerable number of students in the fields of Journalism and Media Studies, both at undergraduate and postgraduate level; as such, sorting through my data demonstrated a number of flaws in my methods for collecting data. Mainly this was due to the fact that I had not initially intended to produce any form of quantitative analysis, and the desire to do so emerged from the number of references to the Blake-Parry hymn which showed definite patterns in some areas. As such, there are a number of limitations in the method for collecting data which ultimately affect the analysis which follows.
My principle methods of data collection were threefold: serendipity, that is by reading through any number of books/listening to recordings that I knew referenced the hymn; more systematically using Google’s NGram Viewer to examine the digitised collection of some five million texts; finally, by using online music databases such as Allmusic and Discogs, these two including 20 million and 150 million texts. While the number of texts included in the NGram Viewer is considerable, this should be placed against a corpus of 25 million books scanned bas part of Google Books (which itself is only a small portion of an estimated 130 million titles worldwide as of 2010).
While the method of data collection was not planned in as structured way as I would have intended had quantitative analysis been planned for from the very beginning, essentially arising from an extended bibliography, nonetheless it represents the most comprehensive collection of data for this topic ever collated. The work is not yet complete – there are, for example, some suspicious gaps in periods such as the 1940s that make me believe that more works remain to be found. In addition, I would like to collate references in news media to the hymn, although preliminary work I have undertaken here indicates that I will have to do a lot more cleaning of data (when a newspaper refers to “Jerusalem”, it’s usually the city rather than the hymn).
Bearing in mind the above limitations, nonetheless the final data set provides some interesting correlations that can be visualised in a number of ways, beginning with a simple scatter plot that shows some the frequency of instances referencing the hymn since Alexander Gilchrist’s publication of the Life of William Blake in 1863.
Unsurprisingly, the chart above shows Blake’s poem/Parry’s hymn being referenced more frequently as time progresses, but we should be wary of rushing to two conclusions that would establish causal relations between the data shown here and the reception of the Blake-Parry hymn.
First of all, the distribution of frequency data would appear to demonstrate an exponential growth which appears to begin some time around the 1990s, but it is perhaps more likely that the eventual shape will be closer to an S-curve, with a saturation of references in the selected media occurring in the twenty-first century. Following from this, the temptation is to discuss the above frequency data in terms of the popularity of “Jerusalem”, but this cannot be demonstrated causally from the data despite the apparent simplicity of a correlation between recorded frequencies over time.
Consider the following graph:
This chart, taken from the Church of England’s Statistics for Mission 2016, shows a fairly familiar trajectory of long-term decline in the Anglican church. Whereas nearly 7 percent of the population defined itself as Anglican in 1960, that figure had dropped to less than 2 percent in 2016, and regular church attendance had dropped from around 3.5 percent to slightly more than 1 percent between 1968 and 2016. Of course, because the population of the UK has increased during that time, it would still be possible for this decline to be matched by a growth in absolute numbers, but by 2016 the actual number of church goers had dropped to below one million. The reason why this is significant to a discussion of “Jerusalem” is that CofE churches use the hymnal Hymns Ancient and Modern, which includes “Jerusalem”: there is no statistical data collected on how often particular hymns are sung at church, but it is not an entirely unreasonable assumption that in one area at least – singing in church – the Blake-Parry hymn is less popular now (or at least performed less often) than it was some fifty years ago.
Because my research on the reception of “Jerusalem” traces its use across certain types of media (books, audio recordings, television and film in particular), it cannot begin to answer whether the hymn is more or less popular in absolute terms, only that it is more prevalent within those media in the twenty-first century than it was during the twentieth century. Certainly the hymn is sung at public events such as cricket matches and Last Night of the Proms, so it may indeed be more popular in absolute terms, but I have not collected the data to verify this. Nonetheless, within the data set I do have some interesting examples of particular points in its reception history are thrown into relief. Thus, for example, while I expected a surge of instances in 1976 during the Queen’s silver jubilee (and there was, indeed, a small rise in occurrences), the greater frequency is actually during 1973, mainly due to a slight flurry in audio recordings including that by Emerson Lake and Palmer on their album Brain Salad Surgery. There is, however, no obvious correlation between this increase and external events, unlike the more dramatic surge in frequency during 2011 (32 instances) and 2012 (29 instances), where “Jerusalem” was clearly recorded and performed more regularly because of the royal wedding of William and Kate Middleton and the Olympic ceremonies/golden jubilee the following year. Similarly, a spike in 2000 was due to the selection of the hymn as the official song for Euro 2000 by Fat Les, with the track being included on a number of compilation albums that year.
There has, then, been a greater media use of “Jerusalem” in the twenty-first century, but this has also been a period of greater deviation between the number of instances each year as the following chart demonstrates:
Each of these three fifteen-year periods demonstrate that the median for instances of “Jerusalem” increases considerably. In the decade and a half when Parry first set Blake’s poem to music, the median was one appearance a year, representing the fact that while occasionally it appeared in some format more than once there were also years when it did not appear at all. By the 1970s, this was no longer the case although the median has only risen slightly to 3 occurrences each year on average. In the first years of the twenty-first century, by contrast, the media is 16 instances a year with a much wider range between the various data points.
The following three charts illustrate similar points in a slightly different fashion, showing the distribution curves for incidents of the lyric “And did those feet”/”Jerusalem” in three different sets. In the first, covering the entire period from 1863 to 2016 (a population where N=150 because in this data set there are a few instances where no data was collected), the mean is 3.84 with a standard deviation of 6.137. What is significant about these numbers is that, across a 153 years, the number of instances in the media of references to the text are very low because, for more than half a century, I was not able to find any reference to the text. If we focus on the century from 1916-2016 (a population where N=98), the mean of instances is higher at 5.69 and the standard deviation or spread of numbers has increased to 7.9. Turning finally to 1970-2016, the first date selected because it is during this decade that we see the first spike in references to the Blake-Parry hymn, the mean has increased substantially to 10.02 and the standard deviation now stands at 7.778. Further concentration on smaller slices of later time periods would intensify this trend – a higher mean and a wider spread of variables from the norm as a greater number of references to the hymn fluctuate greatly.
Again, it is important to read such statistics carefully. “Jerusalem” is more prevalent in certain media instances, but once more this neither proves nor disproves the supposed popularity or otherwise of the hymn. The three histograms above, however, do demonstrate that the data is skewed when viewing the distribution curve for the period 1863-2016 in particular: essentially, there are more years during the nineteenth century when there is no reference to Blake’s poem than when it is alluded to, demonstrating very much that this is a text that comes into its own in the twentieth century.
One thing that does become evident from the data I have collected is that the driving force behind this increased media saturation is audio recording, as the following two charts demonstrate:
The majority of media formats where “Jerusalem” occurs is via audio (whether live performance – only noted rarely in my statistics and not including regular events such as Last Night of the Proms – or, more commonly, audio recordings). While music comprises more than half the instances within my data set, before the 1970s audio recordings at least are rare, and it is during the CD-revolution that takes place during the 1990s that instances of “Jerusalem” appear most often, participating in the wider renaissance of classical music brought about by the innovation of the CD. Indeed, it is possible that a final tailing off of those instances could reflect the decline of CD in recent years, although this correlation cannot be proven and, in any case, could be reasonably expected to have occurred earlier in the preceding decade. In general, however, the data collected does seem to indicate that at least partially the wider media reception of “Jerusalem” corresponded to a transformation in audio recording technologies: the hymn became part of the backing track for the nation because, as with so much other music, innovations in technology meant that it was easier to produce and distribute.
This data, visualised in different ways, does point to a similar conclusion: that “Jerusalem” has been more widely distributed across media formats as the century since Parry set it to music, and that this growth has been driven by audio recordings. I won’t lie, such conclusions are hardly earth-shattering and would have been guessed as “common sense” by any number of commentators, but it is useful to see the evidence demonstrating such a clear trend. Two other examples also demonstrate the value – and the limitation – of such augmented reading, one of which actually shaped my own understanding of the reception of the hymn and another of which indicates the danger of false positivism when employing quantitative methods.
The first set of charts also deals with the categorisation of music as follows:
This first chart – drawing largely on self-identified categories of recordings (whether emphasising a choir, pop music, by a military brass band etc.) is an effective way of seeing immediately some of the ways in which those recordings of the hymn have been categorised. It is an exercise in taxonomy which, while hardly surprising in some respects – the vast majority of instances are orchestral or choral arrangements – does indicate a few interesting examples, one of which I shall follow up below. The one point to make about this visualisation is that it obviously does not help with tracking instances across time: in many cases, this is not especially relevant, but occasionally – as in the categories of sport and music for royal occasions – it disguises the fact that such uses are very recent (largely post-2000) and thus indicate changing attitudes towards/uses of “Jerusalem”.
The interesting example, which for me is illustrative of how such quantitative analysis actually affected my reading of a text, is that of matrimonial recordings.
In and of itself, this doesn’t appear to be an especially interesting chart: between 2004 and 2011 there were fourteen instances of “Jerusalem” being included on wedding compilations. However, this simple data changed one section of my book to a significant degree: there are absolutely no examples of the hymn being included on compilations for this purpose before 2000 that I can find, although I still need to check that there are none after 2011. This is a surprising example of changing uses of the hymn – which personally I trace to the release of Four Weddings and a Funeral in 1994 (“Jerusalem” is sung at the first wedding in the film) with some newspaper references in the late 90s and early 2000s. The spike in 2011 is around the royal wedding of William and Kate Middleton and, if there truly are no further incidents (which I doubt) perhaps represents an oversaturation of the hymn at such services.
The final example deals with one of the most evocative phrases from Blake’s poem – “dark Satanic mills”. The chart below indicates the frequency since 1900 where the phrase has been used separately from the hymn to illustrate some aspect of society or other thought:
For some time, I have been rather adamant that Blake’s phrase has nothing to do with the industrial revolution and, in my opinion, is only tenuously connected with the Albion Flour Mills constructed in Southwark which burned down in 1791. Yet it becomes clear that, after some tentative references in the 1910s (the first instance I can find of the phrase outside of simple repetition within the poem as a whole), the phrase really begins to gain currency from the 1950s onwards. I am not entirely confident of my data to be sure that the dip in the 1970s is entirely satisfactory, but certainly from the 1980s onwards it becomes embedded in popular culture – both in Britain and internationally – as a phrase used to invoke the worst excesses of industrialisation and mechanisation. Of the fewer number of instances where it is used to refer to something else, a significant proportion of these arise from scholars pointing out that it does not refer to the industrial revolution.
This is another example of what Jauss refers to as the changing “horizon of expectations”: as the phrase “dark satanic mills” is used more frequently to refer to industrialisation, so more people refer to it the same way. Admittedly, alternative uses have also increased (some of these directly oppositional) but in the main part this is a case where the meaning of the phrase has definitely chanced since Blake wrote down those words. While I disagree with this usage in many respects as not that which Blake intended, I am also interested in the spread of the term: while it does not represent the author’s original meaning, it has a much more effective use or exchange value as a term describing the industrial revolution. When people use those three words, they call up a period in history extremely effectively and the phrase serves as a microcosm of the ways in which the poem as a whole has been transformed throughout its reception history.
The conclusions of my research at this stage are still fairly tentative. Regarding the value of quantitative analysis, in some cases it demonstrates the obvious (that instances of “Jerusalem” increase as time progresses, and that this really is a twentieth- and twenty-first century text, with its reception doubtlessly driven by Parry’s setting the hymn to music). Even in those cases, it may be of use – for example in terms of showing how prevalent the phrase “dark satanic mills” becomes in the latter part of the twentieth century – and in other circumstance it offered me patterns that I was not expecting, such as the usage of the hymn in wedding services from the early 2000s onwards.
To me it is obvious that more work needs to be done: I consider my data set fairly representative of the hymn, but am not yet fully confident that it offers a suitable population sample throughout the full twentieth century, and as such I cannot say whether certain gaps (most notably in the 1940s) are significant or the result of my flawed methods of collecting data. Nonetheless, some of the evidence that is emerging is compelling to me and this is a project that I wish to continue. The next steps are to ensure that the data set as it currently stands is as complete as possible, while also considering the option to include other media references from news sources.
It should also be noted that the data here has been analysed in a largely descriptive fashion. While I would like to answer certain questions, for example whether a person’s political stance predisposes them to listen to “Jerusalem”, I cannot answer this in anything but an anecdotal way. As Allen, Titsworth and Hunt observe, quantitative analysis is very good at answering questions as to what is happening, but not why. To begin to find solutions to these and other questions would require a mixed methodology incorporating qualitative approaches.
Regardless of certain specific gaps in the data discussed here, there is a more general conclusion that I believe can be drawn upon already, and that is how quantitative analysis compels us to reconsider the text in new ways. Before continuing on this line, it is very much worth remembering the following admonition by Blake taken from his annotations to the works of Joshua Reynolds: “To Generalize is to be an Idiot To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit–General Knowledges are those Knowledges that Idiots possess” (E641). I have been very cautious in some of my own generalisations, and I am critical of the positivist assumptions in some approaches to digital humanities which assume that data reveals us truth. Likewise, although I can understand why Moretti argues against close reading the majority of my own work on “Jerusalem” consists of some 90,000 words of close reading of four quatrains, what I consider to be one of the most important works in England in recent decades.
But when we survey data as a whole, contracting and expanding our senses as Blake describes the Eternals in The [First] Book of Urizen (E71), then we can see different forms, have a sharper sense of the interconnection between those forms as Moretti suggests. For example, while the vast majority of musical recordings are classical, for most of them the significant difference in musical terms is whether they use Elgar’s arrangement or Parry’s: that difference is noticeable, but most other elements of the recording are not. As such, it is the collation of musical settings into different genres and branded formats that becomes important, indicating whether the music is being aimed at a sporting, military, traditional or more easy-listening audience. This is where “distant reading” comes into its own.
In such cases, quantitative analysis of “Jerusalem” does, I would argue, become useful (with such usefulness always being recognised as limited). Alongside the task of hermeneutics, of interpreting the text, it provides a form of literary heuristics, indicating the parameters within which the text operates among a wider audience. It cannot be used to tell us what the hymn means for its various audiences, but it does offer in broad terms some insights into how the text comes to be used in different times and circumstances.
Allen, Mike, Titsworth, Scott, and Hunt, Stephen K., Quantitative Methods in Communication, Sage, 2009.
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.
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.
What’s your opinion about Blake, “Jerusalem” and the Royal Wedding? Leave a comment below.
Morrison, ‘An American Poet’, and ‘English Blake’ are popularly espoused as voices of their nations. Both saw themselves as prophets, claiming at least to comment on and at most to influence the political and cultural events surrounding them. As part of their prophetic personae, they both invented new lineages for themselves, mystically adopting chosen ancestors that would tie them tightly to the kind of historical and creative inheritance they wanted for themselves and their countries.
Morrison tells a powerful memory of childhood trauma in ‘Dawn’s Highway’, one of the poems he recorded on his last birthday (it was put to music by the surviving Doors on An American Prayer):
Me and my – ah – mother and father – and a grandmother and a grandfather – were driving through the desert, at dawn, and a truckload of Indian workers had either hit another car, or just – I don’t know what happened – but there were Indians scattered all over the highway, bleeding to death.
So the car pulls up and stops. That was the first time I tasted fear. I musta been about four – like a child is like a flower, his head is just floating in the breeze, man.
The reaction I get now thinking about it, looking back – is that the souls of the ghosts of those dead Indians… maybe one or two of ’em… were just running around freaking out, and just leaped into my soul. And they’re still in there.
Morrison’s personal mythology here is an attempt to attach himself to the shamanic traditions of native Americans, and also to opt for a more ‘authentic’ American identity than the one of oppressive white power that his biological lineage dictates (considering his father was an admiral in the US Navy, and very much involved in Vietnam).
In Milton, Blake describes becoming one with John Milton, Britain’s most imposing national poet:
The first I saw him in the Zenith as a falling star,
Descending perpendicular, swift as the swallow or swift;
And on my left foot falling on the tarsus enterd there;
But from my left foot a black cloud redounding spread over Europe
Milton had used his writing talents to support the English Revolution (including defending the regicide), and suffered for holding to his beliefs in the Restoration. Blake is asserting radical political authority as well as literary prowess by identifying with Milton.
Blake’s possession by Milton apparently has wide repercussions (‘spread over Europe’ – like Morrison, Blake is writing in wartime). The most conspicuous appearance of Morrison’s recurring lines, ‘Indians scattered on dawn’s highway bleeding / Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile eggshell mind’, is in ‘Peace Frog’ on Morrison Hotel, a prophetic, apocalyptic song with its own specific geography: ‘Blood on the streets / in the town of New Haven’, where Morrison had become the first rock star to be arrested on stage (as Fong-Torres notes, p. 112). Like Blake, he takes elements from his own biography and mythologizes them on a global and cosmic scale. And like Blake he creates catalogues of places to illustrate the national reach of his prophecy: ‘Blood in the streets / of the town of Chicago’, ‘Blood stains the roofs / and the palm trees of Venice’, ‘The Bloody red sun / of phantastic L.A.’. In such a visionary city, he combines literal and figurative geography: ‘blood on the streets / runs a river of sadness’, and most remarkably, ‘The river runs red down / the legs of the city’, recalling Blake’s imagery of birth trauma and miscarriage (in Morrison’s notebook these verses were titled ‘Abortion Stories’, according to Jerry Hopkins in The Lizard King, p. 129). Compare also the ‘unborn living living dead’ of ‘The Unknown Soldier’, and
to the river
in ‘The Soft Parade’. However, the lines could also suggest loss of virginity (which has revolutionary force in the case of Orc and the Nameless Shadowy Female in the Preludium to America); or menstruation as the simultaneous potential of fertility and infertility, life and death; or indeed human sacrifice as practiced by women in Jerusalem. ‘Blood hath staind her fair side beneath her bosom’ (Jerusalem 67:43) in the extended narrative of the Daughters of Albion ‘drunk with blood’ (Jerusalem 68:12), while for Morrison the blood is also the woman’s as victim:
Blood! screams her brain
as they chop off her fingers
Blood will be born
in the birth of a Nation
These lyrics are juxtaposed with a parallel set dominated by the repeated line ‘She came’: female orgasm is apocalyptic and violent for Morrison as it is for Blake at the end of The Song of Los, where
The Grave shrieks with delight, & shakes
Her hollow womb, & clasps the solid stem:
Her bosom swells with wild desire:
And milk & blood & glandous wine
In rivers rush & shout & dance,
On mountain, dale and plain (7:35-40)
In ‘Peace Frog’, and more clearly in ‘L. A. Woman’, Morrison also creates ‘a City yet a Woman’ (Four Zoas,Night IX:223) as Blake does in the figure of Jerusalem, with a kind personification which perceives both simultaneously – ‘I see your hair is burning / Hills are filled with fire’ – and mixes both, blurring external and internal – ‘Drive through your suburbs / Into your blues’. (Note how personification is used toward social commentary: the suburbs are a direct route to depression.) They draw on a collective origin in Biblical prophecy, and partake of its depiction of Israel as a combination of innocent wife and abandoned harlot: ‘Are you a lucky little lady in the city of light? / Or just another lost angel’. Like Blake’s persecuted Jerusalem, ‘Never saw a woman so alone’. (Oothoon also, as rejected but righteous harlot / wife, and as ‘the soft soul of America’ (Visions of the Daughters of Albion 1:3), is a precursor of ‘L. A. Woman’.)
Both Blake and Morrison proceed from this kind of imagery to imagery of male power: as in Blake the call, ‘Awake! Awake Jerusalem! O lovely Emanation of Albion / Awake and overspread all Nations as in Ancient Time’ (Jerusalem 97:1) leads to the predominantly phallic imagery of Albion’s awakening and reuniting with the Zoas, Morrison also moves from the L. A. Woman to the combination of resurrection and erection in his anagram, ‘Mr. Mojo Risin / Got to keep on risin’ / Risin’, risin”. Morrison sings, ‘L. A. Woman, you’re my woman’, while for Blake Albion’s rising also is catalyzed by union with the feminine personification of nation: ‘England who is Brittannia’, who is also Jerusalem, ‘enterd Albions bosom rejoicing’ (Jerusalem 95:22, 32:28). Morrison once said, ‘Los Angeles is a city looking for a ritual to join its fragments, and the Doors are looking for a ritual also. A kind of electric wedding’ (quoted by Federica Pudva, p. 133), like the ones evoked by Blake at the end of Jerusalem, and in the title of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
In her essay on Morrison and Blake, Federica Pudva points out that ‘London was for Blake a real city and at the same time a spiritual and symbolic reality, part of a broad divine vision’ while in Morrison’s vision, Los Angeles was ‘the umbilicus of the world’ and a microcosm of fragmented modern society (p. 132-3, my translation). Morrison called Los Angeles a ‘”genetic blue-print” for the United States’ (Lizard King p. 301). In a poem, ‘The Guided Tour’, he writes,
“I am a guide to the labyrinth”
city is inside of body made manifest
meat organs & electrical
power plants (American Night p. 143)
reminiscent, in reverse, of Los searching ‘the interiors of Albions / Bosom’, which involves coming ‘down from Highgate thro Hackney & Holloway towards London’ (Jerusalem 45:3-4,14). Though the alienated modern city in Morrison owes much to Baudelaire and, as William Cook examines in detail, T. S. Eliot, Pudva finds that Morrison’s flâneur-like observation of prostitution in the city in his poem The Lords – ‘a ring of death with sex at its centre’ – is rooted in Blake’s ‘midnight streets’ and ‘Harlot’s curse’ in ‘London’ (p. 127-8).
We might see Morrison grasping more than content in the Songs if we take ‘People are Strange’ as commenting on the contingent voice of Songs of Experience and playing with the use of persona it offers.
People are strange
When you’re a stranger
Faces look ugly
When you’re alone
emphasizes the kind of interior realities which may contribute to the compulsion of the speaker in ‘London’ to ‘mark in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe’. ‘Women seem wicked / When you’re unwanted’ distils the combination of blame and pity in the ‘Harlot’s curse’ seen as infecting the city and blighting both birth and marriage with death. ‘Faces come out of the rain / When you’re strange’ is like the fragmentation of faces and voices without bodies in ‘London’, and ‘Streets are uneven / When you’re down’ is a direct statement on psychogeography. If the song was inspired by an enlightening Laurel Canyon sunrise, as Robby Krieger narrates (in Fong-Torres 95-6), then it is located (or projected) on Morrison’s home territory as ‘London’ is on Blake’s.
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.
Occasionally there is a quirky project involving Blake that catches my eye, and this summer could bring a couple of potentially interesting filmic gems (or, at least, intriguing oddities) that both take their inspiration from Blake’s “Jerusalem”.
The first of these, and one to which I shall definitely return should it see the light of day, is a digital short starring Ray Winstone as William Blake. Directed by Ryan Andrews, Winstone was in Cardiff in May filming for the project. My (unfortunate) scepticism is that this is not the first time that Winstone has become involved in recording Blake’s life: the 2007 Sam Taylor Wood biopic, for which Winstone was slated to write the script, never appeared – Billy Nuts the Poet losing out to John Lennon for her 2009 movie Nowhere Boy.
Winstone would – in my opinion – make a decent, if somewhat idiosyncratic, Blake. Sexy Beast showed that he was more than capable of playing against type and there’s not much danger of Jerusalem (Andrews’s film) going all “nil by mouth”. Indeed, rather than proving himself the notorious daddy, the piece will be set in period costume and – as Andrews was selected from a shortlist of winners for the entry and the scope of this project is much less ambitious than Wood’s film, it may very well see a final release.
The second project, more recently announced, alternates in my opinion between being bonkers and a marvellous idea (which is a territory I hugely enjoy exploring). Paul McDonahue from Salford is looking to film a no-budget picture, also called Jerusalem, over the coming weeks and, to keep down costs, has been recruiting via Facebook – from where I take his following description of the movie:
An AWOL army soldier, disillusioned with the war, england and the government, arrives in the english countryside after the train he is travelling home on breaks down. Stranded there, he journeys cross country to the next train station meeting various characters and facing many social issues along the way all the while being pursued by the mysterious policeman as he tries to make his way home through England’s green and pleasant land.
Jerusalem, unsurprisingly, won’t have any stars but McDonahue said in a recent interview with the Salford Star that he will be working with a number of experienced actors such as John May (who has appeared in a number of small budget films as well as Channel 5 and BBC programmes). This is the sort of project that would have been impossible to see a few years ago, but I’m sure it will make it online if the director’s dedication to recruiting is anything to go by (one of my favourite posts to his group: “Hiya my names olivia ellis and my dream is to become an Actress if you need one let me know.”)
I’m unsure how much of McDonahue’s desire to deliver a “hard-hitting” message to the government will strike its mark, but I admire his brio and determination. Reminds me of someone else in the first decades of the nineteenth century, struggling in obscurity in London producing an epic poem of the state of Albion which the more famous (and ultimately doomed) artist Thomas Griffiths Wainewright described half-affectionately, half-mockingly as “a tremendous piece of ordance, an eighty-eight pounder”. Barely a dozen people read Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion during Blake’s lifetime, but more remember him now than a fashionable artist whose only claim to fame in the twentieth century is that he was transported for forgery and poisoning – and that he knew William Blake.
In August 1993, a federal judge sentenced the police officers who assaulted Rodney King to 30 months in prison after their earlier acquittal sparked riots in LA, Japan was experiencing its first non-LDP government since 1995, and in Britain the Conservative government under John Major was limping along after a surprise victory the previous year. Cool Britannia was nowhere to be seen, but one of the bands that was to define British culture for the rest of the decade had gathered at the Maison Rouge studios in Fulham, London to record a new album.
Blur’s previous album, Modern Life is Rubbish, had been a commercial failure and over the following weeks the band worked furiously, recording a large number of tracks, sixteen of which were to appear on Parklife, released in April 1994. The album debuted at number 1 and remained in the charts for some ninety weeks, establishing the band as kings of Britpop for the rest of the decade and inaugurating the mock-struggle for hearts and minds with Oasis that was a favourite topic of British media in the nineties.
One of the tracks recorded at Maison Rouge but not released on Parklife was a natty track, Magpie. With lyrics drawn from Blake’s A Poison Tree, it was included as a B-side on the first single from the album, Girls & Boys, which was released a month before Parklife itself. And so began Blur’s – or, more precisely perhaps, bassist Alex James’s – public love affair with Blake.
The track, easily deserving inclusion on the main album, is a perfect example of why the band was so popular in the mid-nineties. In 1994, however, Blake was probably still a little too quirky for the British public – but what happens next is illustrative of how his reputation changed in England’s green and pleasant land in a very short space of time.
The most important change was the huge retrospective of Blake’s art held at Tate Britain in 2000, but in the preceding couple of years Blake had become increasingly important after relative years of neglect. Millennium anxieties, perhaps, were better served by his prophetic vision than cool, ironic cynicism. Whatever the reason, Blakemania was on the increase and so James was one of several figures who decided to out publicly his interest in the artist, selecting the painting of Newton for comment in the Independent newspaper, October 2001:
I LOOKED at this and my immediate thoughts were: colourful, classical Greek figure, very nice. Then I looked again and thought, why is the figure in a fish tank? And what’s that geometry he’s doing? The figure is Newton, one of the great mathematicians in history. He worked out that everything is in motion and came up with his law of universal gravitation: what a feeling, the greatest sort of click moment!
I’m interested in religion but, unlike Blake, my faith is in science, the idea that we can measure the world. I didn’t realise at first that Blake is taking the piss out of science. He’s painted Newton at the bottom of the ocean and if you look closely you see that the body is more like maggot flesh than human muscle. The shape that Newton’s drawing is a piece of mathematics from the Ancient Greeks. By Blake’s day, mathematics was different – Gauss, for instance, was developing ideas of non-Euclidean geometries. So Blake could have drawn Newton doing something more sexy than fiddling with his compass. Essentially, he’s saying, “This man’s an idiot!”
James maintains a critical respect for Blake, admiring the picture but rejecting the artist’s view of the mathematician. Prior to this piece, James had also been involved with Keith Allen and Damien Hirst as part of Fat Les in the recording of England’s official song for the Euro 2000 football contest. Their version of Jerusalem coincided with a brief moment of hysteria around the hymn: Britain’s most popular tabloid, the Sun , announced “You have 31 days to learn these words for Euro 2000”, followed by an article on “10 Things You Didn’t Know About William Blake”. For Fat Les, as indeed for a number of other commentators in the media, the real issue was not just a football song but whether Jerusalem should replace God Save the Queen as the national anthem.
James went on to participate in an event marking the end of the Tate exhibition, Tygers of Wrath, where he performed alongside Simon Boswell, Jah Wobble, and Billy Bragg at the Criterion Theatre in Picadilly. Since then his interest in Blake appears to have diminished (or at least become more private). What is most significant for me about this slice of history, however, is the ways in which it indicates one transformation Blake’s reception. There are always artists, writers, musicians, and filmakers who are interested in Blake, but sometimes he emerges from networks of relatively private, low-key appreciation into much more clearly demonstrated public popularity. In this particular instance, when Britain had not yet tired of New Labour and Cool Britannia could be uttered (at least by some people) without the sense of being completely naff, it seemed to be particularly significant that British Blake was taken up by the public in the UK – more so even than now, I would argue, when more often than not it is English Blake who features in the media in this country. Blake, like Blur, may be part of James’s history now, but for a brief period he was the pre-eminent poet for the musician to connect with his own history.
Mark E. Smith of The Fall has often declared a strong interest in Blake. This podcast provides an introduction to that interest with particular emphasis on “Jerusalem” from the 1987 album, I Am Kurious Oranj.
To read the transcript of this podcast click here.
Transcript of Zoamorphosis podcast. To listen to the full podcast click here.
1. Welcome to Zoamorphosis podcast 11, in which I’ll be looking at Mark E. Smith and The Fall, in particular that band’s version of “Jerusalem” which was included on the 1988 album, I Am Kurious Oranj.
2. The Fall were the favourite group of the late, great John Peel, who once described them as “always different… always the same”. Forming in 1976 in Manchester, The Fall have gone on to have an exceptionally long career, having released nearly thirty studio albums in the intervening period as they moved from punk through a variety of musical styles. In truth, the only really consistent factor during that time has been founder Mark E. Smith, who notoriously fires other members – often at random – to prevent them becoming complacent. (Stories abound of the macabre situations and excuses he finds to sack his entourage, for example on their wedding days or for eating a salad.)
3. In an interview with The Daily Telegraph in 2008 to promote his book, Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E Smith, journalist Nicholas Blincoe suggested that a better title would have been “contrarian” (“Mark E. Smith: Wonderful and Frightening”, April 26, 2008). It is Smith’s contrarian character that provides some insight into the minor, but surprisingly persistent, influence that Blake has played throughout his career. A profile for the NME in 1993 listed Blake as one of Smith’s heroes:
4. He [Blake] was a real workhorse for his time. I thought he was great, especially what he did and how he managed to do it for that period of history. He wrote “Jerusalem” and all his other stuff out himself but the thing is, he used to paint stuff behind the writing and then print it out on copper, totally the reverse of what he was meant to be doing. He’d do paintings with, like, a verse over it and then print it up himself. Amazing, really, when you think about it. I suppose my favourite work by him is “Ghost Of A Flea”… What a title! What I like about it is that it’s just like a really, really grotesque painting. I like something grotesque in an artist. (Ted Kessler, “Mark E. Smith: Heroes & Villains”, NME, December 11, 1993)
5. Along with Sergeant Brownhill (Smith’s grandfather) and the painter Pascal Legras, Blake was one of Smith’s heroes ranged against his villains: British television in the nineties, alternative comedians, and mature students (“There’s nothing worse than a half-educated man. Never forget that.”) Smith’s approach is studiedly slap-dash – there is, after all, nothing worse than a half-educated man, and Smith famously did not read his own “autobiography” which debunked stories about the lead singer of The Fall without providing alternative foundational myths. The interview draws attention to what is appealing to him about Blake: the artist’s work ethic and his talent for the grotesque. This casual appreciation, however, cannot completely cover what Richard Barrett has rightly identified as Smith’s auto-didactism, a tendency Barrett believes Smith shares with Blake and which has also been a strong tradition of British working class life (http://abandonyourtimidnotion.blogspot.com/2009/02/mark-e-smith-blake-and-auto-didactic.html).
6. While Blake crops up in interviews with and comments by Smith, his strongest influence is on “Dog is Life / Jerusalem”. Released on I Am Kurious Oranj (as well as a single), the album was written as the soundtrack to a ballet of the same name by Michael Clark & Company. Several reviewers of the time observed that this album came during one of The Fall’s more accessible periods, though the inclusion of the Blake-Parry hymn supposedly intended as a celebration of the accession of William of Orange has more than its fair share of sly obscurities, typical of Smith’s work.
7. To adapt John Peel’s remark, this is something different, something the same – typical Fall, yet probably a surprise choice for most of their fans (whom Smith has always spent more time attempting to alienate rather than curry favour with). Jerusalem has the signature feel of a Fall track, the sense of always about to fall into chaos with Smith casually riffing Blake’s lyrics over a wonderfully tight bass. While Smith’s voice provides a distinctive feel to the track, it could almost be a conventional rendition until he launches into a beautifully bizarre and apparently meandering diatribe in the middle of the song.
8. These lines – about an incident with a banana skin being the fault of the government – bear no apparent relation to Blake’s vision of Jerusalem. Why would a pratfall deserve a million quid? But of course, such a question is deliberately obtuse: a pratfall deserves nothing other than mockery, and Smith’s humour is self-knowing when he mocks the narrator of this diatribe as “a semi-artistic type person” who resolves to emigrate to Sweden or Poland where he will be “looked after properly of the government”. The contrast between him and this feckless scrounger becomes clear when Smith returns to Blake’s words.
9. Now the shambolic, comic voice has gone. Instead Smith is determined, assured, as he calls for his bow of burning gold. Smith has often been criticised by those on the left for his un-PC views which appear to flirt with right-wing tendencies, but it is probably more correct, as Barrett observes, to see this as a long tradition of attacks on welfarism that share a working-class distrust of state sponsored dependency. Smith himself played gigs in support of the unemployed, and once remarked that “the whole idea of civilization is to get everybody on the dole, surely”, but the irony of this comment does not disguise distrust of governments, both left and right, who had sought ever surer ways during the twentieth century to trickle down enough capital to ensure complacency on the part of a reliant populace. Handouts will never build Jerusalem.
10. Smith’s attitude is always tricky, and his deliberately provocative remarks, as well as his absurdist, often cruel, humour, are probably as far away from any vision of the divine image as it is possible to get. But this, of course, is to miss the point of this version of “Jerusalem”, which seeks to no more make a million pounds from slapstick than it does celebrate the radical Protestantism of William of Orange. Rather, what Smith takes from Blake is the artist-poet’s curmudgeonliness, his crankiness, what W. J. T. Mitchell once referred to as the “dangerous Blake” that we often neglect at our peril, the lunatic shouting in the street who may suddenly prophesy in clear and lucid tones, the contrarian who speaks in riddles so “That he who will not defend Truth, may be compelled to Defend a Lie, that he may be snared & caught & taken”.
Extract from Tony Richardson’s remarkable The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), based on the Allan Silitoe play and starring Tom Courtenay. In this scene, the boys at a borstal school sing “Jerusalem” while one of their members is punished by the warders.
Go to the next video from the William Blake Jukebox: