Until recently, each year I used to present a lecture on the formation of the United Kingdom as part of a course on the long eighteenth century. Beginning with the 1707 Acts of Union that joined Scotland, England and Wales, and concluding with the 1800 Union that resulted in the formation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the lecture ended with a brief introduction to William Blake’s stanzas, "And did those feet in ancient time" as a foretaste of a discussion of Romantic nationalism.
As part of the lecture, I would ask my students whether they identified with a series of national identities. A small scattering of hands went up when I inquired as to who considered themselves a citizen of the UK, while many more indicated that they considered themselves to be British. When faced with the question of whether they are English, there was often a pause for several in the room, who realised that they want to refer to themselves as both British and English and wondered whether I'd set one of those multiple choice questions where only one answer is allowed. There were, alas, almost no hands raised for anyone to indicate that they considered themselves Welsh, Scottish or Irish: when I began teaching some twenty years ago, I would regularly be among a small but clearly identifiable cadre of students from the Celtic nations, but changes to the financing of degrees in these islands has all but ended their presence in English universities. Certainly, there were always more students who identified themselves as EU nationals, and when I asked – somewhat impishly in the present climate – who considered themselves European, there was a substantial overlap with British and English students when they realised the question was not an either/or one.
The point of this entirely unscientific sample, leaving aside the fraught nature of British-European relations following the EU referendum in 2016, was to illustrate to my students the frankly bizarre status of national identity within this small archipelago of islands. Even without the issue of EU citizenship, the status of nationhood within these isles is a source of considerable confusion, and as the Ordnance Survey so poignantly remarks, the "cardinal sin in the eyes of a true geographer" is to confuse the UK with Great Britain or the British Isles (itself a hugely contentious term in the light of Anglo-Irish history), yet a sin which is regularly committed. To this must be added further peculiarities: the constitutional position of Wales is not, as the Institute of Welsh Affairs notes, a straightforward one, nor is England, in fact, a sovereign state, but is rather one constituent country of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. There must be no other country in the world where citizens may consider their identity, quite legitimately, determined by three domains without even considering the supra-national question of Europe or more local geographies such as counties and regions.
In the 2003 collection of essays, History, Nationhood and the Question of Britain, several contributors such as Hugh Kearney and Arthur Aughey suggest that attempts to write a “four-nations history” have suffered both from a failure to understand the real ethnic diversity that has long been part of the British Isles, but also that any simple notion that Britain as an English invention imposed on the periphery in order to maintain control is an oversimplification: Scotland, Ireland, Wales and eventually the Commonwealth all had a role to play in definitions of Britishness – not least when members of former colonies sought to establish special claims on London. Assumptions that England can stand in for Britain, and that the countryside is somehow intrinsically more English than urban areas, are both false for a great many people living within these Isles: that the hymn written by William Blake in 1804 and set to music by Hubert Charles Parry in 1916 is partly responsible for such a view, with its invocation of “England’s green and pleasant land”, is particularly ironic considering that Blake himself spent most of his life in London.
When I have told people that I’m writing a book on “Jerusalem”, a considerable number have told me – often with touching nostalgia – their own memories of singing the hymn in their youth, as part of a school choir, cricket team or something similar. They have automatically assumed that part of my own rationale for writing about this poem must be motivated at least in part by similar happy memories. In fact “Jerusalem” only entered my life very gradually. The first time I remember hearing it was during the early 1980s when Chariots of Fire was shown on TV. My early teenage years coincided with the Falklands Conflict, which took place as the film was re-released in cinemas following its Oscar successes, yet the rather profound influence that Chariots on me at that time was nothing to do with Blake’s words or Parry’s music (if anything the rather schmaltzy electronica of Vangelis had more of an effect on me). Nor, indeed, was I particularly sensitive to the questions of English and British identity that infuse that film. Needless to say, the arguments that were bubbling away in academia at that time as to whether the film was a paean to Thatcherism or, in the opinion of its producer, David Puttnam, and writer, Colin Welland, that it was a more liberal critique of the establishment completely passed me by. No, for a callow teenager, Chariots of Fire was above all other things a film about running. Having long been a disappointment to my parents when it came to any kind of team sports (something at which they both excelled), I had only recently discovered a certain capacity for athletic endeavours in which I could demonstrate some success, running as fast as possible and jumping as long, or as high, as I could. I had been entranced by the athleticism of Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and was utterly enchanted by the cinematic contests of Ben Cross as Harold Abrahams and Ian Charleson as Eric Liddell.
At that point I knew very little of Blake (although I shared a family name with the poet and artist on my mother’s side) and even less of “Jerusalem”, not realising that Chariots of Fire took its title from the stanzas from Milton. The concluding scene of the film was very familiar to me in its format – a hymn in a church – but the words were completely foreign. Although I regularly attended church and served as an altar boy at that time, my own place of worship was a Catholic one and I had never sung the Blake-Parry hymn. It was not, as with the Dean of Southwark or the Vicar of Cheadle, that the song was banned for being too nationalistic: it was simply unknown, or at least unheard, in Catholic services. It would be a neatly sentimental twist to suggest that the exploits of Abrahams and Liddell inspired a love of Blake in me that was to last far longer than my passion for athletics, but in truth my response to hearing “Jerusalem” for the first time was underwhelming. It was alien to me not because it was the invocation for a Middle Eastern city to be built in England’s green and pleasant land; I was, after all, used to hearing not dissimilar invocations as to the importance of Rome as a guide for the inhabitants of Britain, and my imagination regularly dallied with choirs of angels, the horrors of hell and all the glorious inheritance of a vast multitude of Mediterranean saints. Rather, this seemed to be a song about England and, if I gave the matter any thought at all at that time, I would have identified myself as Catholic first and English a distant second, despite being gifted with a thoroughly Anglo-Saxon last name. Such matters of religious versus national identity have become poignant in recent years in discussions of Islam within the British Isles, but that debate has merely supplanted a much older one where it was Catholicism that was viewed as the fifth column working secretly against the Establishment.
My own love of Blake, then, unfolded more slowly, especially after encountering The Marriage of Heaven of Hell at university – which did more than anything else to usurp my own simple conviction in any one holy, Catholic and apostolic church – as well as the beautiful brilliance and strangeness of Blake’s own Jerusalem, the Emanation of the Giant Albion. It was also stimulated by the surreal qualities of his paintings of figures such as Newton or of Urizen as the Ancient of Days, and received a much more idiosyncratic stimulus from my Irish grandfather. This man, John Blake, discovered a love of painting in his final days and would mockingly boast that he was the reincarnation of William Blake based on no more than a shared surname. Alas, John Blake’s art did not display the same genius of William’s – unlike his capacity for inventive storytelling. Had he been aware of it, he probably would have taken issue with the theory espoused by Edwin John Ellis in his 1906 biography, The Real Blake, that the artist’s grandfather was an Irishman who changed his name from O’Neil to Blake after marrying a woman who had made her money from sales of whiskey. As proof of this preposterous connection, Ellis baldly stated: “No one can study the cast of William Blake’s head made for Deville the phrenologist without seeing that he was an Irishman.” While John Blake may have had little opinion as to whether William looked particularly Irish, he would not have appreciated the need for a name change: after all, there had been plenty enough Blakes in County Limerick to establish an equally fallacious connection to his home country.
For a variety of reasons, then, my own appreciation of “Jerusalem” was long an ambiguous one, not least that I only gradually recognised myself as English, spurred on in great part by being regularly identified as such when living and working in Cornwall (a county that, perhaps more than any other in England, questions any simple identification with national identities). The oddities of Englishness versus Britishness prompted my PhD and first book, William Blake and the Myths of Britain, especially with regard to what status both Britons and the English held in Blake’s strange, primal figure of Albion. Throughout nearly three decades of studying Blake, I have repeatedly returned to the question of Blake and nationalism which has always struck me as one that is deeply fascinating and, oddly, even stranger than his visions of an angel in a tree in Peckham Rye or the ghostly visitation of the man who built the pyramids in the house of John Varley. In 1949, Bernard Blackstone could resolutely declare his confidence in Blake’s fundamental character as that of an English Blake (and it took a Canadian, the great Northrop Frye, to point out some of his errors in a review in Modern Languages) but Blake’s own attitudes to England were extremely ambivalent with almost only one exception: the stanzas from Milton.
Detached from the prophetic books (where the giant Albion is both terror and enemy as well as father and friend), and re-invigorated by Parry, “Jerusalem” has become synonymous with something essential to the character of England and Englishness - if only we could agree what those terms actually meant. Indeed, what is clear in the century between Parry’s composition and the vote for Brexit, “Jerusalem” has frequently been the site of mental fight regarding what Englishness is, between left and right, between nationalists and internationalists. At times such as the present, that fight can feel extremely vicious rather than the glorious contention between equals that Blake celebrates as the condition of Eden throughout his prophetic books. Despite this, however, I am often filled with hope that one of the virtues of “Jerusalem” as another anthem for England is that, unlike so many other contenders for the title such as “Land of Hope and Glory” or “Rule Britannia”, it calls upon those who sing it to build rather than to conquer, to engage in the mental fight of the arts that lifts us all rather than corporeal war that degrades even the victors. We may disagree upon what Englishness means, but as Blake also wrote in the book from which his famous stanzas are taken, “Without contraries is no true progression”: in the spirit of one of England’s great dissenters, my own book does not seek to impose a meaning on “Jerusalem”, but instead to explore some of the many ways in which we have sought to build it in our green and pleasant land.
Jerusalem: Blake, Parry and the Fight for Englishness is published by Oxford University Press on July 14. Copies can be purchased from https://global.oup.com/academic/product/jerusalem-9780192845870.