Saturday, 10 May 2014

The Irony of 'Jerusalem' (Revised Version)

Before every rugby match against Uppingham, at every large school event, and after every House Unison competition, it has become tradition that Oundelians unite to sing that famous anthem, ‘Jerusalem’. Put to music as a morale-booster during the First World War, the traditional interpretation of Blake’s ‘And did those feet in ancient time…’ is one of patriotism and nationalism. However, this interpretation seems to be in direct contention with Blake’s own views. William Blake, the early Romantic poet, was certainly not a patriot; in fact, he was a non-conformist with radical views about organised religion and sexuality, amongst other things. He even referred to himself as a ‘liberty boy’; the group of Americans known for undertaking the Boston Tea Party and for protesting against the abuses of the British government. This in itself suggests that Blake opposed the authority exerted by the established institutions of English society.

Given Blake’s views, it is some thing of an irony that ‘Jerusalem’ is sung in Chapel services and is in the Hymn books that pupils love to slam shut (to the annoyance of anyone in authority). To begin with, ‘Jerusalem’ is not a hymn. A hymn, in its traditional sense, is a prayer to God, and Blake’s poem is not. Rather, the message of ‘Jerusalem’ is held in direct contrast to the teachings of the Bible. In Revelation 21 it says: ‘I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…’ and God himself exclaims: ‘“I am making everything new!”’ Conversely, ‘Jerusalem’ says that it will be us, the people of England, who will be building the New Jerusalem, and it concludes with the following lines:

            Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green & pleasant Land.’

Rather than a prayer for divine intervention, the final message of the poem seems to suggest that, by working together, humanity can achieve fulfilment without God’s help. Notwithstanding his use of religious metaphors and symbolism, Blake’s vision of the English Jerusalem is man-made.

Blake was particularly opposed to the oppressiveness of the established Church. In his poem ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ he writes: ‘a system was formed [i.e. the Church], which some took advantage of and enslaved the vulgar… thus began priesthood.’ Moreover, in his poignant poem ‘The Garden of Love’ Blake depicts a Church invading his ‘Garden of Love’, and he writes: ‘Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds, / And binding with briars, my joys and desires.’ His aggressive stance on organised religion suggests that the poem should never have been adopted as a hymn in the first place. Should the words of a man who reviled the Church really be sung inside one?

Many people believe that the poem is a call to arms to fight for our country. However, this is unlikely to have been Blake’s intention. When Blake exclaims that ‘his sword will not sleep in his hand’ and that he will not ‘cease from Mental Fight’ he is not supporting imperialist values. He is also not, I am afraid, talking about going to war with Uppinghamians on the rugby pitch. Rather, he is imploring us to devote ourselves with religious vigour towards the improvement of our country; turning it from the land of ‘Dark Satanic Mills’ into the New Jerusalem. His poem ‘London’ tells how capitalism has ruined England, and depicts the bleak and wretched lives of the poor. Blake had quite radical sympathies for those living in poverty, and so it can be inferred that, by the ‘New Jerusalem’, Blake probably envisioned a land of equality and socialism, not constrained by capitalism or organised religion.

Accompanying the poem ‘And did those feet in ancient time’ there was written the following quotation from Numbers, Chapter 11: “Would to God that all the Lord’s people were prophets.” Considering his views, it is unlikely that Blake was referring to the prophets who relate the word of God (since he hated being told what to do), but rather those prophets who speak out about oppression and unjust authority. Christopher Rowland, a Professor of Theology at Oxford University, suggests:

“Blake wanted to stir people from their intellectual slumbers, and the daily grind of their toil, to see that they were captivated in the grip of a culture which kept them thinking in ways which served the interests of the powerful.”

By putting this quotation beneath the poem, Blake is again emphasising the power of the individual as a ‘prophet’. Again, could this suggest that we do not need the help of authority and the powerful to achieve great things? Pupils could see this somewhat anti-establishment interpretation as a rejection of school rules.

‘Jerusalem’ is one of the most popular poems ever put to music and undoubtedly it is a great morale-boosting anthem. However, when Oundelians do sing it, we ought to keep its message in mind and understand Blake’s meaning. It is not a call to arms; it is not an appraisal of England; it is not even a hymn. Rather, it is calling for the people of England to work together to build a great nation, without the help of authority.