At the end of every term at my school, gathered in the gothic chapel, we sang Sir Hubert H Parry’s setting of William Blake’s “Jerusalem”.
I associate this ritual with a warm glow, the approaching holidays – especially the Christmas holidays – belting out those words (“And did those feet … ”) as loud as possible to the big swell of the Willis organ.
As part of the first world war Fight for Right campaign, Parry had been invited by the poet Robert Bridges to compose his setting in March 1916. At the time, heavy casualties were being sustained around Ypres, northern France, and the hymn was intended “to brace the spirit of the nation [to] … accept with cheerfulness the sacrifices necessary”. His uplifting anthem was to make up for all the deaths – or,in our case, the grind of tests and exams. But I don’t think most of us had a clue what we were singing.
Blake was an unlikely choice for the send-off hymn at such a place. He spent all his life resisting the establishment – artistic, literary, political, social, religious. He would have been camping out with the Occupy St Paul’s protesters, not inside the cathedral with the bishops. His hatred of Sir Joshua Reynolds, president of the Royal Academy, hardly helped his chances of succeeding as an artist in conventional milieux. Blake was an enthusiast for the French revolution. This was more dangerous than disliking Reynolds; in January 1804 Blake was tried for sedition and might, if convicted, have been transported to Botany Bay. Fortunately the jury acquitted him.
Blake was a full-time member of the awkward squad, which the smoothies of the English ruling class have always regarded with distaste. More importantly, he was a visionary artist and poet. The poem we know as “Jerusalem” comes as a part of the preface to “Milton: A Poem”, a prophetic work about the condition of England. In it, in the most concentrated form, he confronts us with his vision, or with a choice.
One thing both Parry’s triumphal setting and our schoolboy renditions completely ignored was that “Jerusalem” begins with a question; the first two stanzas, in fact, consist of four questions. Blake is questioning, literally, an old story that the young Jesus travelled to England, accompanied by his uncle, Joseph of Arimathea. Beyond the literal level, he is asking whether England ever was, or can be, a place of love and peace at harmony with the natural world.
The choice is implicit in the imagery. England is a mixed-up sort of place in the poem. It consists both of “pleasant pastures” and “dark Satanic mills”. But overall it is (or has the potential to be) a “green and pleasant land”.
Faced with this choice, it seems that the British prime minister and chancellor (and they are quite representative of politicians in many countries) take opposing stances. David Cameron used to speak lyrically about “the beauty of our landscape, the particular culture and traditions that rural life sustains”. He promised, before coming to power, to make his “the greenest government ever”.
But for George Osborne, there is nothing wrong with dark Satanic mills. In fact, judging by his autumn statement, he wants more of them. “We are not going to save the planet by shutting down our steel mills, aluminium smelters and paper manufacturers,” he declared. If there is too much concern about “endless social and environmental goals … businesses will fail, jobs will be lost and our country will be poorer.”
Yet Blake’s vision of a green and pleasant land was not of an unpeopled wilderness (the goal of some environmentalists). He once wrote that “where Man is not, Nature is barren”. But he would also have said the reverse, that where nature is not, man is barren. “The Auguries of Innocence” are the greatest statement of animal rights ever made: “A horse misused upon the road/ Calls to heaven for human blood/ Each outcry of the hunted hare/ A fibre from the brain does tear.”
The blind inability to see the synergy between environmental and social goals and economic ones, along with the continued insistence on unnecessary sacrifice, seem to me a sad height of folly. But Blake in his magnificent courage would counsel not despair but unceasing “mental fight”.
More columns at www.ft.com/eyres