The story behind: Jerusalem

28th March 2003 at 00:00
We sang William Blake's "Jerusalem" at school to Hubert Parry's rousing tune, but the words - though marvellously resonant - were seldom explained, and had to be puzzled-out in order to make sense.

And did those feet in ancient timeWalk upon England's mountains green? - nostalgia for a golden age. And was Jerusalem builded hereAmong these dark Satanic mills? - Actually, we thought that - before capitalism's slave-labour factories blighted the landscape - Britain was just woods and green fields. Bring me my bow of burning gold!Bring me my arrows of desire!I will not cease from mental fight,Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,Till we have built JerusalemIn England's green and pleasant land.

Well, the last verse is clearly a call to arms. But precisely what was this "Jerusalem" which William Blake was so keen on?

Blake was both a political visionary, and also more than a bit mad: much of his later poetry could be classed as the literary equivalent of "outsider art" - those heroically obsessive visual worlds created by talented schizophrenics which are sometimes exhibited at the Hayward Gallery. But Blake's Jerusalem was a perfectly rational politico-religious concept: a new society where Christian and proto-Marxist virtues were the norm.

To read this poem in its original context, though, don't look at Blake's "Jerusalem": you'll find it in a different poem-cycle entitled "Milton".

But Parry composed his setting with a more specific Jerusalem in mind: a world where women had the right to vote. It was used by the National Union of Suffrage Societies in the 1918 celebrations of women's enfranchisement, and soon after became the national anthem of Women's Institutes everywhere.

It will always be sung: the only question is, what will the next new Jerusalem be? A nuke-free world?

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