Jerusalem: Blake, Parry, and the Fight for Englishness by Jason Whittaker - review by Robert Colls

Robert Colls

O Clouds Unfold!

Jerusalem: Blake, Parry, and the Fight for Englishness


Oxford University Press 272pp £25

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, he was trying to ‘Rouze up’ the ‘Young Men of the New Age’ against the ‘Hirelings in the Camp, the Court & the University’. At a time when Britain was facing invasion from Emperor Napoleon’s legions just across the Channel, Blake set himself the task of appealing to those who ‘do not want either Greek or Roman Models’ by offering instead glimpses of a new Anglo-Hebrew heaven on earth.

Blake’s art was obscure at the best of times, but suffice it to say that these much-unread verses were rediscovered by the Victorians, anthologised by the Edwardians, set to music by Parry and made mighty by Elgar in his orchestration of Parry’s arrangement. Charges of sedition long forgotten, in 1953 Sir Malcolm Sargent conducted ‘Jerusalem’ in the grand finale of the Last Night of the Proms, alongside Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs, Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No 1 and Arne’s ‘Rule, Britannia!’, all accompanied by an awful lot of jolly flag-waving. It has been a staple of the event ever since.

Director of the Royal College of Music, Parry had been persuaded by the poet laureate Robert Bridges to compose ‘Jerusalem’ for a campaign meeting at the Queen’s Hall in London in 1916 of the Fight for Right Movement, set up the previous year to boost support for the armed services. But Parry was no jingo and just before his death in 1918 he gave the copyright to the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (it later passed on to the Women’s Institute). At this point, ‘Jerusalem’ was a song for organ and choir, but at the Leeds Festival in 1922, Elgar gave it some welly, adding enough brass and boom to show just what an imperial crescendo might sound like.

However, it didn’t just appeal to imperialists. During the interwar Depression, the Left claimed it too, finding in it a vision for renewing a country that was neither green nor pleasant. J B Priestley, E M Forster, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell and others took up the idea, shifting the interpretation of Blake’s ‘Satanic Mills’ from fantasies of hell to images of life in a Lancashire cotton mill. Clement Attlee got ‘Jerusalem’ into the Labour Party Song Book in 1950, but by then Paul Robeson had been singing it to Labour audiences for years.

This was a time when the English had every reason to sing ‘Jerusalem’ as if they meant it, but the story does not stop there. Don Partridge recorded it in the 1960s, Ronnie Wood and Emerson, Lake & Palmer in the 1970s, Judy Collins in the 1980s, Grimethorpe Colliery Band and Billy Bragg in the 1990s and Bob Davenport in the 2000s. The Conservatives began singing it at party conferences in the 1980, and it has become a mainstay of the Barmy Army’s repertoire too. Figures as various as Nick Griffin and Ben Okri have put it to use, not to mention Jez Butterworth, author of the wonderful 2009 play Jerusalem (currently on at the Apollo in London), a raving tribute to the deep Englishness of fucking and fighting, local legend and the search for the Giant Albion. Daftest of the lot, The Fall recorded ‘Jerusalem’ in 1988 for the soundtrack of a post-punk ballet celebrating the life of William of Orange. We had it at our wedding in 1973. The Cambridges had it at theirs in 2011.

Whittaker is a professor of English and journalism at Lincoln University. His Jerusalem takes us through the highways and byways of English popular culture. The story he tells, however, is not quite as brave or as radical as he seems to think. He offers little historical or theoretical explanation of how nations get made in the first place, and his main theme, that ‘Jerusalem’ offers ‘deeply conflicting notions of what is meant by Englishness’, is a path so well worn that it’s hard to see over the hedge. Revealing the ‘inventedness’ of an identity does not invalidate it, and to be told that ‘Jerusalem’ was part of ‘the mental fight of workers against the forces of Victorian Britain which had dehumanized them’ is just lazy. ‘Dehumanized’? Really?

Most national anthems start at the top and find their place with the people. Very few come from the people and find their place at the top, though I still live in hope for ‘Sunshine on Leith’. ‘Jerusalem’ is a hybrid. The words came from the imagination of a London artisan cast onto the hills and lanes of rural Sussex. The music came from the podium. Occasionally, as at the Proms, the two meet in the middle-class middle.

We sang it at our annual school speech day. Along with the school song (‘Outpost England, touched by Roman, storied by our father Bede’), ‘Jerusalem’ sounded decent enough to our cramped but lusty spirits – better than the usual church fare, at any rate. Had we known that the words came from a man who believed in giving free rein to all the passions and desires of youth, we might have kissed the music teacher and embraced Parry’s anthem with all the love it deserves.

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