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Jerusalem: Blake, Parry, and the fight for Englishness by Jason Whittaker

16 December 2022

Michael Wheeler looks at the reception history of some famous lines

BOTH Oxford and Cambridge University Presses now offer “crossover” hardback books of a high scholarly standard, but addressed to a wider audience than that for their usual (highly priced) niche titles. Jerusalem, by the head of English and Journalism at the University of Lincoln, is an excellent example of the type, being an original and well-researched study in cultural history. It contributes much to its academic field while remaining accessible to the general reader, rumours of whose death have proved to be exaggerated.

Hubert Parry’s setting of powerful lines from the preface to Blake’s Milton opens up a rich seam for the student of cultural values associated with national identity, patriotism, and imperialism. Whittaker, a Blake scholar, first explains the legend of Joseph of Arimathaea’s visit to England’s mountains green, the place of Druidism in Blake’s mythology, and the crucial part played by the imagination in his idea of “dark satanic mills”, identified more closely with the forces of militarism and mercantilism than with sooty northern factories.

Blake was rescued from obscurity in the Victorian period by Gilchrist’s biography, Swinburne’s essay, and W. M. Rossetti’s edition, part of the Aldine Edition of the British Poets. When the Revd Stewart Duckworth Headlam, a Christian Socialist, took over the editorship of The Church Reformer in 1884, he replaced its cumbersome motto with Blake’s final stanza, “I will not cease from mental fight. . .”

In Whittaker’s judgement, Headlam “did indeed seem to draw close to at least some of Blake’s own ideas about building Jerusalem”. Another clergyman, Henry Charles Beeching, also figures in the story of Blake’s reception, as he reprinted the poet’s stanzas alongside Shakespeare’s “scepter’d isle” speech in his anthology A Paradise of English Poetry (1893): a union, we are told, “that would often be repeated throughout the twentieth century — a marriage of martial glory and national pride that obscured the complex relations of both writers when dealing with the subject of England”.

Whereas Blake, the radical pacifist, called for a national and international fight against the dark forces of oppression, with bow of burning gold and arrows of desire, the first performance of Parry’s morale-booster, arranged in D major, took place in the Queen’s Hall on 28 March 1916, when Britain and its Empire were locked in a ghastly mechanised war of attrition with Germany.

Parry found the jingoism of Younghusband’s Fight for Right movement disturbing, however, and donated the copyright to the suffragette movement at the end of his life. The story of the piece’s afterlife is littered with further ironies and ambiguities, once Elgar, a solid Conservative, had orchestrated it for the Leeds Festival of 1922, and the Women’s Institute had adopted it as their official hymn two years later.

Elgar may have considered the 1924 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley to be vulgar, but the performance of the Parry by a choir of 3000 was astonishing. The piece’s association with imperialism then proved hard to throw off, even as its “ownership” swung leftwards and struck the keynote not only for Attlee’s Labour Party, but also Blair’s New Labour.

Brilliantly demonstrating how “Jerusalem” was frequently “flattened out” by those who appropriated it, Whittaker guides us from “Flash Harry” at the Proms, through Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Sillitoe, Jarman and Edgar, Chariots of Fire, the Falklands War, the post-modern Marian cult associated with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and her footsteps on England’s “greenest hills”, and on to the use of “Jerusalem” in the packed stadiums of England cricket and rugby internationals, while some clergy refuse to have it sung in church.

So, the hymn remains as contested as the Englishness with which it has always been identified.

Dr Michael Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton and the author of The Athenæum: More than just another London club (Yale, 2020).


Jerusalem: Blake, Parry, and the fight for Englishness
Jason Whittaker
OUP £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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