Malcolm Guite: Poet’s corner

by
01 September 2017

Malcolm Guite seeks to answer Blake’s questions

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?

 

PROBABLY not. But I was invited to indulge in just that speculation when I took part recently in recording a radio programme about Blake’s “Jerusalem”. Blake was alluding, of course, to the lovely cycle of legends centred on Glastonbury, and particularly to the story that Joseph of Arimathaea, as a Phoenician trader, had brought Jesus as a child to England when he came to buy tin from the Cornish mines.

There was such a trade in New Testament times; so the whole glorious story is theoretically possible, but we were all agreed, on the programme, that it was very unlikely to have happened, and, indeed, that the next part of the legend, in which Joseph returns to England, after the resurrection, bearing with him the holy grail, and plants his staff in the English earth, where it roots and flowers in the Glastonbury thorn, may also involve some wishful thinking.

With the one exception of an episode in the Temple in Jerusalem, the Gospels are strangely silent on Jesus’s childhood and youth, and so it’s natural for all of us who love him to try and imagine those hidden years. It is also natural to imagine Jesus in our own country, to picture him transfiguring some familiar landscape.

There is truth in such imagination; for all Christians bear Christ with them, and we walk our green hills in him and he in us. I have walked the wolds and folds of England with my friends and sensed his presence in our talk and in all we saw, walking together in faith.

Perhaps the real question is not about the “ancient time”, but about the present and the future. For Jesus comes to England not only in and with and through all of us who are christened, en-Christed, but surely also in the stranger, in the unknown figure who draws near us as we walk. The encounter on the road to Emmaus was not a one-off, but a sign of things to come.

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And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

 

Perhaps not in those days, but now the Lamb is here! The child Jesus may not have made the dangerous crossing from the Middle East to our green and pleasant land, but there are plenty of children who have done just that in the past few years. We need not look to the past, but only open our eyes to the present. Blake asks, in another place, that we should “cleanse the doors of perception”. If we did, then we might well see, in the face of a child refugee, the Counten­ance Divine shining forth upon our clouded hills.

They asked us, on the radio programme, whether we would be singing along to “Jerusalem” on the last night of the Proms, and I, for one, will be doing just that. But I will sing it, not as a jingoistic song for little England, but as an anthem of renewed vision, the vision of a heavenly Jerusalem, whose name means “city of peace”.

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