Tuesday, September 09, 2014

"Jerusalem" a fascinating look into an eccentric poet's mind. But not an English Anthem!

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England's pleasant pastures seen!

The first verse relates to Christian myth that Jesus ("those feet"; "holy Lamb of God") once came to the land that is now England. Blake does not pose it as a question. There is an exclamation mark not a question mark at the end of the single sentence verse. So it's a statement - perhaps a parable in Blake's eyes linking the green mountains and the pleasant pastures with a pacific view of Christianity. "Lamb of God" has both a link to the pastoral idyll of English topography and to the idea of sacrifice.

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

The "Countenance Divine" is God's face and the conceit is that God looks down approvingly except, that is, at the "Satanic Mills"  (the ultimate opposite of God, Satan, created the industrial revolution with its smoky, sooty factories). Both sentences in this verse are questions so Blake is asking us whether it is possible to build Jerusalem among the industrial detritus. A metaphor which relates to the idea that the Christian Faith can be a comfort even though the environment and the daily toil are despoiled and arduous.

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

In this verse Blake is moving from the pacifist to the warrior. He is arming himself to fight those who are despoiling his land. 

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green & pleasant Land

And finally, having established that God is on the side of the greenness and the pleasant and against the satanic spread of industry, Blake feels empowered to fight. He has weapons to try and enforce the rightness - these include logic and reason (the "mental fight") as well as a sword to go with the bow and arrows, the spear and the chariot. Again all this is metaphor, for Blake was an unlikely soldier. The suggestion is that the new Jerusalem may have to wait for Jesus's second coming - though this is perhaps not as clear as some commentators would suggest.

English Anthem?

"Jerusalem" is a distinctive and unusual Christian poem. Blake's personal Christianity was singular and non-conformist. It reveals two Englands, the pastoral - which is approved of, and the industrial which is reviled. This was in around 1800 so there was a lot more of the Industrial Revolution to come in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Satanic can be seen to have won. 

In the 21st Century the idea that "Jerusalem" can be any sort of English National Anthem is preposterous. Even when set to Parry's splendid and lively music. Why would we take as our anthem a two-hundred year old paean to the pastoral from an eccentric poet who never intended that he was writing patriotically at all? His verses are not primarily a celebration of England but an early warning to those who were, as he saw it, destroying its greenness and pleasantness. 

Modern England still, thankfully, has it's rolling hills and it's green fields. But it also has its great cities and its huge urban conurbations. Both are valid, but far far more of us live in the latter than do in the former. We are overwhelmingly an urban not a rural society. And we are multicultural as well. To have an eccentric Christian poem, however charming and uplifting it may be for some, as a National Anthem is inconceivable. A modern anthem should be secular celebrating modern England and Englishness. "Jerusalem" does not and cannot do this.


Post a Comment

<< Home