It’s the destiny of certain great poems to become domesticated, tamed, and de-fanged. There is no better example of this than the fate of Blake’s “Jerusalem”. Originally a part of his long narrative poem “Milton”, “Jerusalem” was adopted by the English labour movement as its unofficial anthem and also by the Anglican church as a hymn. Now there is a move afoot to make it the anthem of England (a nation within the United Kingdom which, like Scotland and Wales, is enjoying an awakening of separatist identity).
If you go on Youtube you’ll see some amateur videos showing Blake’s words being sung as a hymn. The background images are quite nationalistic: soccer players, Buckingham palace, the royal guards, and RAF fighters. No “dark Satanic mills” are shown. Watching these videos you’d think that Blake was a regular bloke, the sort of chap who’d be happy to beat up Italians after a football game. It’s salutary to be reminded by Terry Eagleton that Blake hated the fusion of state and religion. The poet was also passionately anti-militarist and a republican. “The middle-class Anglicans who sing his great hymn Jerusalem are unwittingly celebrating a communist future,” Eagleton notes.
Blake loved England but he wasn’t a nationalist in any traditional sense. Northrop Frye once shrewdly observed that Blake carefully tried to incorporate all of world mythology into his poems, including what he could find from Africa and Asia. Of course, all reading is misreading, all poems are re-made by their readers. But in this case it’s worth pointing out that the popular re-interpretation of Blake’s poem is directly at odds with the intense radicalness of the words. This misreading of Blake is wrong-headed because it makes the poem much less interesting.
Blake was one of the very greatest of English poets. His only rivals in his national tradition are Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth. He is a much narrower writer than these rivals, lacking any sort of gift for narration, character-creation, digression, and amiable small talk. But his vision is also more intense and truer than his peers. He had an unparalleled gift for zeroing in to the very core of the most important issues, for encapsulating great truths in the starkest possible terms. In honour of this great man, it’s worth revisiting his “Jerusalem” as he wrote it, sans music and sans jingoism:
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 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.