Friday 16 September 2005


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?

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

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.

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

I wonder if people realize what they are singing when they join in this now patriotic anthem, sung before play on the last days of the Ashes at The Oval cricket ground. Do they realize (as Tom Paulin pointed out in his Radio 4 programme "And Did Those Feet", broadcast on Tuesday 28 December 2004) that Blake's words are interrogative? They question whether Christ really did walk upon our lands, whether London really is the New Jerusalem. This is a radical, anti-monarchical, revolutionary hymn, a call to arms "against a sea of troubles", hoping, "by opposing", to "end them". Blake was a Nonconformist; yet now this hymn is sung at Women's Institute meetings in church halls all across England (as, for example, in the film Calendar Girls (2003)), partly because it was sung by the Suffragettes (and thus, was again about overturning the current order). It is a central tenet of the common worship of the Church of England, a symbol of gentle conservatism, and is often sung at funerals and at public school memorial day services - even in Scotland at my own alma mater, Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh. It is often associated with socialist ideals: fighting together to improve society. I suppose, even despite these paradoxes and contradictions, that it is a suitable English anthem, for England prides itself nowadays on being a relatively tolerant and forgiving place (how true this is one could dispute), embracing these sorts of cultural anomalies and traditions, which don't always mean what they did when they started out.

Blake wrote it as the preface to his work Milton: A Poem (1804), but it is mainly known now as the hymn "Jerusalem", set to music by C. Hubert H. Parry in 1916. Its patriotism is echoed in Rupert Brooke's famous First World War sonnet, "The Soldier", the last of a sequence entitled "1914":

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Its sense of liberty echoes also in my memory of the nineteenth-century American poem "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus, the concluding lines of which are inscribed at the bottom of the Statue of Liberty (and which I know through the opening animated sequence of Channel 4's old American Football programme, hosted by Gary Imlach in the early 90s):

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Inevitable, also, must be the connection with John of Gaunt's vaunted speech from Shakespeare's Richard II:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear'd by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,-
For Christian service and true chivalry,-
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry
Of the world's ransom, blessed Mary's Son:
This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leas'd out,- I die pronouncing it,-
Like to a tenement, or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots, and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah! would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death.

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