Monday, July 16, 2012

The new Jerusalem

Prime Minister Cameron has revealed he would choose the hymn Jerusalem as a national anthem for England's sports teams. Cameron joked that the hymn may be interpreted as a left-wing rallying call because of its mention of "dark satanic mills" - thought to refer to the Industrial Revolution. However the Conservative leader said he disagreed and that it should belong to everyone. Blake is a difficult figure for the right wing to co-opt.

King George V said that he preferred "Jerusalem" over "God Save the King". Until 2010, "Land Of Hope And Glory" (or as socialists call it “Land of Dopes and Tories”) was used as the anthem when English athletes won gold medals at Commonwealth Games. But this was switched to Jerusalem for the 2010 games in New Delhi after the hymn was chosen in a poll launched by the Commonwealth Games Council for England. It is traditionally sung at rugby league's cup finals and rugby union games. Since 2004, it has been the anthem of the England cricket team, being played before each day of their home test matches. Socialists are utterly opposed to such manifestations of nationalism.

The 1808 short poem by William Blake (music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916) is inspired by the apocryphal story that a young Jesus, accompanied by his uncle Joseph of Arimathea, a tin merchant, travelled to the area that is now England and visited Glastonbury during Jesus' lost years. The legend is linked to an idea in the Book of Revelation describing a Second Coming, wherein Jesus establishes a new Jerusalem, a metaphor for Heaven, a place of universal love and peace. Blake implies that a visit of Jesus would briefly create heaven in England, in contrast to the "dark Satanic Mills" of the Industrial Revolution.

Blake saw the cotton mills and collieries of the period as a mechanism for the enslavement of millions. The phrase "green and pleasant land" has become identifiably English landscape or society. Blake was an outspoken supporter of the French Revolution. The poem expressed his desire for radical change without overt sedition. (In 1803 Blake was charged at Chichester with high treason for having 'uttered seditious and treasonable expressions', but was acquitted. Christopher Rowland, a Professor of Theology at Oxford University, has argued that "Blake wanted to stir people from their intellectual slumbers, and the daily grind of their toil, to see that they were captivated in the grip of a culture which kept them thinking in ways which served the interests of the powerful." and the words of the poem "stress the importance of people taking responsibility for change and building a better society 'in England's green and pleasant land.' " Like other radicals such as William Cobbett and William Godwin, Blake observed the propertied classes crush down those beneath them in the name of national interest. Hence, this is a poem of struggle for human - not national - identity. For Blake it was humanity in the whole that mattered – regardless of race, creed, nationality:

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk, or Jew;
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.

(The Divine Image)

Sir Hubert Parry put it to music for a jingoistic pro-war Fight for Right campaign whose aims were "to brace the spirit of the nation, that the people of Great Britain, knowing that they are fighting for the best interests of humanity, may refuse any temptation, however insidious, to conclude a premature peace, and may accept with cheerfulness all the sacrifices necessary to bring the war to a satisfactory conclusion". Parry began to have misgivings again about Fight for Right and eventually wrote to Sir Francis Younghusband withdrawing his support entirely the following year.

The song had been taken up by the Suffragettes in 1917. It was used as a campaign slogan by the Labour Party in the 1945 general election; Clement Attlee said they would build "a new Jerusalem". It has been sung at conferences of the Conservative Party, the Labour Party and by the Liberal Democrats. The Labour Party sing it annually since it is an old socialist hymn

In the year of the London Olympics we would be amiss not to draw attention to another of  Blake's poems. The poem reflects Blake's extreme disillusionment with the suffering he saw in London. Blake lived and worked in the capital, so was well placed to write clearly about the conditions people who lived there faced and who understood, with depressing wisdom, both the hopelessness and misery of their situation. Many saw the French Revolution as inspirational - a model for how ordinary, disadvantaged people could seize power. Blake alludes to the revolution in London, arguably suggesting that the experience of living there could encourage a revolution on the streets of the capital.


I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear. 
How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every black'ning Church appalls;
And the hapless Soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.
But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot’s curse
Blasts the new-born Infant’s tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

by William Blake

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