And was Jerusalem builded here?

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.

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