Lead book review

‘Jerusalem’ is a rousing anthem – but who knows what the words mean?

‘Jerusalem’ may be our unofficial national anthem, but don’t ask anyone who sings it to tell you what it means, says Philip Hensher

9 July 2022

9:00 AM

9 July 2022

9:00 AM

Jerusalem: Blake, Parry and the Fight for Englishness Jason Whittaker

OUP, pp.256, 25

The spontaneous mass adoption of deep feeling is always interesting. Jason Whittaker has a very good subject, in the journey of the cryptic lyric section of the preface to William Blake’s incomprehensible epic Milton, written and illustrated between 1804 and 1810, to its becoming the de facto national anthem of England. ‘And did those feet…’ only took on its familiar title ‘Jerusalem’ (which has nothing to do with Blake’s poem entitled ‘Jerusalem’) after it was set to music by Hubert Parry on 10 March 1916. The following day, Parry handed over his composition to his colleague Walford Davies, saying insouciantly: ‘Here’s a tune for you, old chap. Do what you like with it.’ Since then we have indeed done what we like with it, and the story Whittaker tells goes in a number of surprising directions.

The short poem alone was slow to catch on (the preface wasn’t even included in all the copies of Milton that Blake printed) and didn’t reach much of an audience until the 1860s, when Swinburne expressed his puzzlement about it. Michael Rossetti then printed it as part of an edition in the 1870s, and it started to become more familiar when a Christian socialist editor of the Church Reformer in the following decade adopted the last stanza as the motto of the journal. Up to that point no one had recorded the folk tradition that Jewish merchants in Jesus’s time had come to Cornwall to buy tin, and that Jesus’s father might have brought him to England. So there is no evidence that Blake had done anything but make it up out of his head.

But what does the poem mean? Even now few can come up with a convincing explication, and the dizzying academic ones seem to me quite wrong. Whittaker himself, a sane and intelligent writer, thinks that the figure in the first stanza isn’t Jesus but Joseph of Arimathea. But how can that be, since only Jesus could be said to have a ‘countenance divine’?

Most interpreters have also missed the point that the speaker proposes to engage both in ‘mental fight’ and proper physical violence where necessary: ‘Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand’ doesn’t mean a battle merely of ideas. And we think of the ‘dark satanic mills’ as factories – but they can only have been watermills or windmills, and perhaps not even that. All in all, the poem, which hardly any critic attempted to elucidate until the 1950s, is a perfect one for the English spirit: cryptic, inward, keen on outbreaks of violence and both utterly abstruse and slightly hearty. Blake wrote it shortly after being prosecuted for gross sedition and starting a punch-up with a soldier.

Parry produced the famous setting in the middle of the first world war and it caught on like wildfire. He was one of the internationally minded creative figures whose hearts were broken by the conflict. His style was formed by Brahms, and he described himself in 1915 as having long been a ‘pro-Teuton’. His music occupies such an official status, including the great coronation motet ‘I Was Glad’, that it’s surprising to learn that he wasn’t an Edwardian imperialist in the Elgar vein. ‘Jerusalem’ – as it was now called – was taken up by mystically inclined imperialists like Francis Younghusband, who wanted to ‘rouse men and women for enthusiastic service in the sacred cause’. But Parry had other ideas, conducting it in March 1917 at a meeting for women’s suffrage, and, wonderfully, handing the setting’s copyright to Millicent Fawcett and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Other idealists, like the early pan-Zionist Israel Zangwill, also adopted it for their own causes.

It’s a devastatingly good tune, planned for ordinary singers to sing in unison, in crowds. It’s actually rather hard to sing, covering an octave and a half, like ‘The Star Spangled Banner’, and has some real subtleties that often get missed in performance, such as tiny differences between the stanzas. (The emphatic crotchet D in the stanza’s ‘O clouds unfold’ was described by Parry’s contemporary as ‘the one note and one moment of his song that he treasured’.) On the whole it’s one of those tunes that have risen to national eminence not through official sponsorship but through profound collective emotion. If it never becomes an official English national anthem, it will still be sung at moments of deep feeling, like ‘Va Pensiero’ in Italy or ‘Waltzing Matilda’ in Australia.

Since its writing, the great setting has been used in two more or less incompatible ways rubbing along quite happily. There are the English loyalists and patriots, many unobjectionably respectable. George V complained when it was left out of his jubilee concert in 1935, telling his officials that ‘if there’s no room for it, I shall go down myself to the platform and whistle it’. Felpham, in West Sussex, where Blake wrote the poem, voted overwhelmingly for Brexit, and that seems perfectly in tune with one reading of it. But that side of its supporters also extends to some fairly repulsive nationalists, from whom both Parry and Blake would have run a mile.

On the other hand there are the liberals and old-fashioned English socialists, from the suffragettes, through Clement Attlee’s mission to build the New Jerusalem, right up to Billy Bragg and Jez Butterworth, whose hit play Jerusalem shows just how much heat there is left in the sense of nation and England.

Somewhere in this wide spectrum lies its traditional use by the Women’s Institute and the Last Night of the Proms. The BNP leader Nick Griffin also persuaded his supporters to sing it when he was arrested for racial offences. More recently it has become a central point in the long, painful debate about how to make English nationalism an open, engaged, respectable thing – and large questions arise in the last chapters of Whittaker’s study.

You can quote the poem endlessly. There are at least ten phrases in it that have been used, often repeatedly, as titles for other things, from ‘Chariots of Fire’ to ‘Nor Shall My Sword’. You can make it support your position without troubling to find out whether it has positions of its own, or oppose it for the same reason. The hapless artist who called it ‘jingoistic’ and the Church of England vicar who amusingly refused to have it at wedding services because what it said wasn’t true are equally good witnesses to the power of the poem and its music.

Much of the latter half of Whittaker’s book is spent tracking down some extraordinarily obscure renditions of Parry’s setting. I particular discommend an ‘electronica dance version’ by Arte Atomica, released in 2015, though there are others that run it close for sheer horror, including Errollynn Wallen’s priggishly disapproving rude-noise arrangement for the Proms.

Jerusalem is a wonderfully researched, enjoyable work about a cultural phenomenon of the utmost familiarity, and it performs its task very successfully. But the more one considers the poem, the stranger it seems – like staring at a familiar word until it starts to look like nonsense. Whose feet? What bow? Why is it burning? And why is a sort of metaphysical valet being told to bring imaginary and incendiary weapons? Whittaker proves an excellent, lucid guide to realms of almost unimagined obscurity. ‘Jerusalem’ might prove a great improvement on ‘God Save the Queen’ as the English anthem – but don’t ask anyone who sings it to tell you what it means.

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