Friday, 13 May 2011

About the "English Hymn": Jerusalem

"Jerusalem" was sung at the Royal Wedding some two weeks ago today, a piece of English nationalism and nostalgia which was welcomed by many. The Idle Historian was live-tweeting the wedding, and noticed two comments on twitter (alas, sadly, lost, so I am unable to give just credit where it is due). One user wondered why they were singing a hymn, about which the obvious answers to the four opening questions (about the myth of Jesus having traveled to England) were: no, no, no, and um, no. Another user commented on the fact that so many of the powerful and influential were singing Jerusalem (actually quite a "radical," or even revolutionary, piece) with apparently so little understanding of the words they were singing.

Jerusalem is based on a poem by William Blake (one of the Romantic poets). He combined the myth of a young Jesus having traveled to England with an expression of reformist zeal to ameliorate the conditions caused by the Industrial Revolution (the "dark Satanic mills") and overturn the values of a society crassly based on commerce and materialism. The music was composed by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916, and the hymn gained popularity throughout the twentieth century. It is now the virtually uncontested "anthem of England," sung at sporting events, important gatherings, and each year at the famous Last Night of the Proms. It is nostalgia and patriotism personified, and few English people can feel wholly unmoved at hearing it.


And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's 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 England's green and pleasant land.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 


Hels said...

Amazing. I am not a Christian, I don't like Blake and I am not British, yet I find Jerusalem to be one of the most inspiring pieces of music that we ever hear. Sir Herbert Parry must have been a genius, especially since 1916 was right in the darkest days of WW1. No wonder people loved it passionately.

I wonder if the myth of a young Jesus having gone over to England to reform the Industrial Revolution is known by everybody who sings or loves the music?

Sylvia said...

I hadn't (knowingly) heard the hymn before the royal wedding. When sung piously by grandees it seems cloyingly patriotic, but as you point out, it is really rather subversive. Thanks for bringing it up!

Sarah said...

I've always loved this hymn ever since I realized it was playing in the final funeral scene of Chariots of Fire. Gets me every time. The radical social justice bent of the lyrics makes it even better.

IdleHistorian said...

Thanks very much for your great comments, Hels, Sylvia, and Sarah! I agree that it is always moving to hear it, even though I am not English myself. I was in Trafalgar Square in 2005 for the celebration of England winning back the Ashes after many years. (Unfortunately I did not know much about cricket at the time, although I do know considerably more now.) The gathered crowd burst into a spontaneous singing of Jerusalem at least 5-6 times! It was quite something to listen to it as an expression of emotion, joy, and national identity.

northernheckler said...

The beauty of this anthem is that it allows the singer to sing without endorsing any particular belief - it's asking questions and providing intentions rather than stating "truths" or exalting monarchs or gods.

I'd like to see it formally adopted as the national anthem for England.

IdleHistorian said...

That is a good point, northernheckler. I had not thought of it that way! I know that many people feel as you do about adopting it as the official anthem for England.

Simon said...

The Romantics were revolutionaries. Blake and (at first) Wordsworth & Coleridge) were keen supporters of the French Revolution, and although the latter two turned their back on their radicalism and joined the Establishment, Blake never did. He continued to publish his visionary work lamenting the oppression around him. To Blake, the tyranny of serfdom had simply been replaced with the tyrrany of commerce and materialism.

Jerusalem is far more than a return to a bucolic age, but a yearning for a revolution that would forge a new age, where the values of the rural poor, those he considered closest to the natural order, and thus closer to God, would triumph over the corrupt Princes and Priests he saw around him.

I did tweet during the Wedding about how oblivious everyone seemed to this. Was it me you mentioned above?

IdleHistorian said...

Thanks for your comment Simon. I was not previously following you on twitter, but that oversight has now been remedied!

You are quite right about Blake expressing far more than a return to a rural past. Very well put! I should amend the end of that particular paragraph to better reflect some of these ideas.

Bourbon&Pearls said...

I find it so moving. I had it at my wedding and it caused a bit of a furore as I'm Scottish but it was my wedding and my choice, I think it was the snobby political implications that upset "the others"
Oh and my husband loves Tatler, he always tries to get to it before me and he's the bookish sort just like you!

IdleHistorian said...

Glad you took the plunge to have "Jerusalem" sung at your wedding.
And, indeed, huzzah for Tatler!

Anonymous said...

It's worth pointing out that Jerusalem is also sung, appropriately, by the Labour Party at its annual convention. Saw it once on TV, and it was pretty moving.

I think the Conservatives, by contrast, sing Land of Hope and Glory.

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