A hymn to wishful thinking

Why is everyone singing the praises of Blake's 'Jerusalem', the official anthem to England's Ashes victory?

Shirley Dent

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Effusive crowds greeted England’s cricketers in Trafalgar Square on 13 September as if they were conquering heroes. And what song did the cricketers and their fans belt out in celebration of their Ashes win? ‘Jerusalem’, of course, which has become the official anthem, it seems, of the English cricket team.

What is it about William Blake’s hymn ‘Jerusalem’? On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme last week there was an odd pairing of right-wing newspaper columnist Simon Heffer and left-wing singer Billy Bragg, both singing the praises of ‘Jerusalem’ as an anthem to unite the nation in the closing stages of the Ashes. That neither Heffer nor Bragg seemed to agree on what, in the words of Heffer, the ‘corporate national consciousness’ is or should be, didn’t quell their enthusiasm for ‘Jerusalem’ as the unofficial national anthem. They seemed to have caught the spirit of the moment.

The Daily Mail reported that ‘England’s Michael Vaughan…[is] backing a campaign to get the whole country singing “Jerusalem” at the start of England’s crucial final Ashes Test against Australia on Thursday’, and helpfully printed the lyrics to the hymn.

But haven’t we been here before? Euro 2000 saw ‘Fat Les’, the group composed of actor Keith Allen, artist Damien Hirst and Alex James of Blur, announcing that their version of ‘Jerusalem’ would be England’s official Euro 2000 song. This was to be a ‘Jerusalem’ for sanitised terraces: the credits name-check the London Gay Male Choir, New London Children’s Choir and the London Community Gospel Choir, taking some of the acid out of film director Derek Jarman’s sneer about William Blake as this ‘minor poet who wrote this popular football song’. But there is one startling omission on the Fat Les credits. There is no mention of Hubert Parry.

Allen told the press at the time: ‘Everyone has heard “Jerusalem”, most of us have sung it and all of us know some of the words. Frankly, it’s a cracking good hymn.’ Allen’s not wrong: ‘Jerusalem’ is a cracking good hymn. But it is Hubert Parry’s hymn, not Blake’s. From banging out those famous first lines ‘And did those feet….’ to the rabble-rousing closer ‘Till we have built Jerusalem / In England’s green and pleasant land’, Parry’s music and Blake’s lyrics have become almost indivisible in common knowledge of the hymn.

Parry set the Preface to William Blake’s Milton (produced in various versions between 1804 and 1818) to music in 1916 for the Last Night of the Proms, and hey presto, the hymn known as ‘Jerusalem’ was created. The timing of the first performance is telling. Slap-bang in the middle of the First World War, with the old European order tearing itself apart, it’s not surprising that even King George V was so transported by what he heard that he wanted ‘Jerusalem’ to replace the dirge-like ‘God save the King’ as the national anthem.

But how does this square with Billy Bragg’s remark that his ‘belief that “Jerusalem” is a left-wing anthem has got me into arguments with public schoolboys at Eton and Trotskyist newspaper sellers in Trafalgar Square’? How come the Suffragettes and the Labour Party adopted the hymn, as well as the monarchy?

‘Jerusalem’ means so many different things to different people because it is a paean to myth and looking backwards. Blake extols us to think back to the myth of Jesus travelling to England accompanied by Joseph of Arimathea. For Blake, the promise that Jerusalem could be builded here is a return to a mythical Eden. ‘Jerusalem’ is the ultimate hymn of wish fulfilment: it is a description of a vision rather than a prescription for making that vision a reality.

As such, it is a fine hymn. But when pop stars and politicians start calling on the nation to sing ‘Jerusalem’ as a sign of our togetherness, you can be sure that they are confused about what that ‘togetherness’ means – and have little idea of what sort of future they want to build.

Shirley Dent is chairing the What is Poetry For? session at the Battle of Ideas in London on Sunday 30 October

She is author, with Jason Whittaker, of Radical Blake: Influence and Afterlife From 1827. She also has as essay on Anne Gilchrist as an editor of Blake’s work in the forthcoming Women Read Blake: Opposition Is True Friendship (Palgrave).

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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