Lines in England’s unofficial national anthem confused contemporaries and we are not faring much betterby Jason Whittaker / December 26, 2019 / Leave a comment
For more than a century, the hymn “Jerusalem” has been a staple of English national culture. Usually invoked as a sign of patriotic pride—at Last Night of the Proms or the 2012 Olympics—it also appears from time to time with a knowing wink to those more liberally minded, as in the recent rejuvenation of Alan Moore’s Hellblazer comics by Si Spurrier and Aaron Campbell. Returning to London from a long sojourn in the US, central character John Constantine encounters a naked Boris Johnson in an episode entitled “Green and Pleasant Land.”
The original poem—the source of various famous phrases such as “dark Satanic mills” and “arrows of desire”—was written by William Blake as part of his epic poem Milton, which includes the stanzas beginning “And did those feet in ancient time.” The reason why so many people have been willing to interpret the poem as a patriotic piece lies less with the religious and political dissenter Blake than with Charles Hubert Parry, the composer who set his words to music in the midst of the First World War.
Whether patriotic or ironic, a shared feature of all “Jerusalem” allusions tends to be a sense that everyone knows what it is about as an archetype of Englishness. The first readers of Blake’s poem, however, appeared to be completely confused as to its meaning. Alexander Gilchrist, the biographer who introduced Blake to a Victorian audience, printed the stanzas almost without comment. The enfant terrible of the aesthetes, Algernon Swinburne, observed that in reading Milton “we pass again under the shadow and into the land that shifts and slips under our feet.”
By contrast, we’re meant to understand “Jerusalem” today as part of our national heritage. Kate Maltby, writing for the Spectator in 2016, repeated a variant of the oft-repeated joke that “Blake asks four questions in succession, and the answer to each is a resounding no.” The first of these is whether Jesus Christ came to Britain with his relative, trading for copper and tin. The only problem is that the myth of Christ coming to Roman Britain, as the historian Paul Ashdown has shown, was only invented in 1895, long after Blake’s death. The poet wasn’t writing about Christ at all but rather Joseph of Arimathea, whose legendary visit to these isles was repeated by Milton…