In a landmark essay on the Englishness of Elgar, published in 1986, Jeremy Crump asked that before we transport ourselves from our high-tech suburban sound systems into the Malvern Hills ‘in the golden glow of a late imperial afternoon’, we might spend a moment reflecting on ‘how it is that a complex series of sound patterns has so specific and literary a significance’.
In the spirit of Crump’s modest but essential invitation to consider how music carries meaning, Jason Whittaker reflects on a song which, over a hundred years since Sir Hubert Parry composed the music and over two hundred years since William Blake wrote the words, has come ‘to assume the place of an English anthem’.
‘Jerusalem’ has a complex publishing history. First written as part of the preface to Blake’s epic Milton a Poem (1804–11), it seems to have been inspired by the poet’s altercation with a soldier at Felpham in Sussex, which led to Blake’s trial for assault and sedition at Chichester Assizes in 1803. It also appears as part of Blake’s Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, first printed in 1820.
I won’t try to explain Blake’s four stanzas (famously beginning ‘And did those feet…?’ and ending ‘in England’s green and pleasant land’) in terms of the legends and mythologies that were wafting round his head in those mad, excitable days, except to say that, in his own words,