Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Our not so shared ‘Jerusalem’

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon Englands mountain 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 those 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 will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In Englands green and pleasant land.

Jerusalem by William Blake 1804, music: Hubert Parry 1916

English is spoken, and sung, on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. Britain and America have many christian denominations in common (though not the same proportions). Some protestant songs are sung in catholic churches, and anglicans, and some others, sing english versions of latin hymns. Many in the pews do not know that a song has crossed over. Sometimes there has been lyric changes, and some have reverted back (‘saved and set me free’, or ‘saved a one like me’ to ‘saved a wretch like me’); and then there are gender language issues, that have not largely reverted back.

Many songs are international (Ave Maria, How Great Thou Art). The one song that is at the tippy top in England is, Jerusaslem. In England this crosses denominations. It is familiar in chapel, on campus, and in uniform. It is sung during sports engagements, and as a team song. In the US, many were introduced to it through the film, Chariots of Fire*. Its inclusion in an american service is probably a rarity.

The terms ‘anthem’, and ‘hymn’ are used interchangeably in many languages. Put ‘national’ in front of either in England and Jerusalem wins. Many, especially republicans (which on the eastern side of the Atlantic is a far more favorable term than on the western shores), would prefer this over the the royalist anthem.

Blake's poem was not so beloved, or known, until the Great War (WWI), when it became a highly patriotic, and nationalistic anthem, newly set to orchestration. The ‘bows, arrows, spears and sword’ are military instruments. The song refers to them as building, when they are destroying. It is a martial anthem.

The last sentence speaks of England as heaven on earth by the sweet phrase ‘green and pleasant land’. The poem starts with a legend of the missing years of Jesus, being spent in part in the tin country of the southwest, near Glastonbury (Camelot). Of course, that was celtic Britain and not the England that replaced it. This sweetness is easily remembered, and lingered upon.

The sharpest line is, ‘And was Jerusalem builded here among those dark satanic mills?’ Not everyone realises what they are listening, or singing to (an english glenn beck, or limbaugh type radio mouthfoamer would have a pompous hissy fit when it is pointed out to them). The very leftist Billy Bragg sings the song in concert. Those ‘dark satanic mills’ built the capitalist economy, and paid for the imperialist state that was England. Those mills were the engines of capitalism, and ‘satanic’ they certainly were, but which pious capitalist would vocally admit them to be? Blake was a revolutionary poet, and protestant, not at all happy with the C of E. Blakes feelings about the satanic mills would be enthusiastically echoed by luddites.

The british Labour Party sings it regularly. Some years ago, a programme of rude (and sometimes hilariously accurate) puppets, Spitting Image, had a Tory (Conservative) version, And did those feet in ancient time walk upon Englands lower class?...
*And as they went on, walking and talking together, behold a fiery chariot, and fiery horses parted them both asunder: and Elias went up by a whirlwind into heaven. — IV Kings ii.11.

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