Blake's Jerusalem

Issue section: 
(372)

Jerusalem, the song based on a poem by William Blake, is now the unofficial national anthem.

For Danny Boyle, on the left, Jerusalem created the opportunity to include industrial workers in the Olympic opening ceremony. For David Cameron, on the right, Jerusalem is an expression of distinctively English nationhood. For many ordinary people Jerusalem offers a welcome alternative to the depressing, jingoist dirge of God Save the Queen.

Jerusalem is open to many interpretations. William Blake was a complex character and his works can be difficult to read - but one thing Blake was not was a nationalist of any kind. He was a revolutionary.

Today Jerusalem has an extraordinarily wide appeal, but for a long time very few people read the poem on which it is based. "And did those feet in ancient time" was part of a longer prophetic poem, Milton, written in 1804. It went largely unnoticed. In 1916 the poem was set to music by Sir Hubert Parry, who had been looking for a rousing tune to rally British troops - Jerusalem was born. However, the rights to Jerusalem were owned for many years by the suffragette movement, and it was sung at labour movement rallies. Throughout the 20th century the song grew in popularity, not just as a rousing anthem for the labour movement, but as an expression of an idealised England. As the song became more famous, it moved further from the beliefs and hopes of Blake.

William Blake was a visionary, a radical poet and artist who lived most of his life in poverty and obscurity. He and his wife Catherine created illustrated poems that celebrated energy, imagination and freedom. They condemned the institutions of government, army and church and championed the poor and downtrodden. Like other radicals in his circle, such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine, William Blake embraced the French Revolution of 1789. He celebrated the overthrow of tyranny in his art and wore a red bonnet as a symbol of his Jacobin sympathies. When political reaction set in, Blake was vulnerable to "church and king" mobs and repressive laws. He left Lambeth and moved to the seaside, at Felpham, Sussex. However, his hopes of finding peace and security crumbled when he had an argument with two soldiers and was arrested for sedition and treason, crimes which carried the death penalty.

Menaced by the forthcoming trial, isolated and broke, the Blakes returned to London in 1803. To their horror, they found London dominated by hysteria over imminent war with France. Blake had written powerful condemnations of the mills, kilns and forges, which reduced human beings to being appendages of machines.

Such industries were now put to more diabolical use, creating weapons and forging the instruments of a bloody human harvest. Blake wrote to a friend in Felpham that he couldn't believe a city of peace and liberty had ever existed in London, now the hub of war. He feared that the youth of England were in danger of being sent to the slaughter, just as he was in fear for his own life. Blake believed that wars were a means by which tyrants crushed resistance. This was the experience which he poured into Jerusalem.

Blake was deeply religious, and wrote in a language inherited from the English Revolution of 1649, when political debates were pursued in theological terms. He started his poem by raising the possibility that Jesus once visited England and briefly established a society of universal peace and love, which was the subject of an ancient legend.

"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 poem moved away from this vision of an idealised England to the clouded hills and the unforgettable image of the dark, satanic mills. At the heart of the poem is the contrast between the harmonious, peaceful society Blake aspired to and the crushing, life-sapping reality of the industrialising world.

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

Although Blake's prophetic books are often obscure and complex, the following verse makes it clear that he still believed in fighting for change, and asserted the right to imagine, desire and fight for something better. The images of war are turned not against France, but against those who seek to prevent a new world being created.

"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!"

Blake raged against repression and recognised the self-censor, the "mind-forged manacles" that inhibit resistance and protest. In a stirring image of revolt, he called for mental and physical resistance to create a new Jerusalem. The dark, satanic mills were Blake's reality - the green and pleasant land was not - it was one possible future which could only be born out of unwavering resistance.

"I will not cease from mental fight,/Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,/Till we have built Jerusalem/In England's green and pleasant land."