March 28, 2013

“England’s green and pleasant land”


If you’re not British, you may only be vaguely aware of the song “Jerusalem.” But the tune and lyrics are very familiar to the people of England.

There it is essentially an unofficial national anthem, like “God Bless America” is in the United States. Some Brits have urged that “Jerusalem” be made the official national anthem of England.

The song was first performed on March 28, 1916, during World War I, at a patriotic “Fight for Right” concert at Queen’s Hall in London.

Its melody was composed that year by Sir Hubert Parry, one of England’s most famous composers.

The lyrics are more than a century older than the music.

They come from the preface English poet and artist William Blake wrote for his epic poem Milton, which was first published in late 1810 or early 1811.

The first two paragraphs of Blake’s preface are an obtuse rant that criticizes, among other things, the “Hirelings in the Camp, the Court, & the University: who would if they could for ever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War.”

The second part of the preface, written in verse, are the words used as the lyrics for the song “Jerusalem”:

“And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold;
Bring me my arrows of desire;
Bring me my spear; O clouds, unfold!

Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.”

The first and last lines of the song are widely known and often quoted, as is the phrase “dark satanic mills” — a poetic expression of Blake’s opinion about the smoke-belching, labor-abusing factories of the Industrial Revolution.

The song also helped popularize the phrase “chariot of fire”, which Blake took from the King James Version of the Bible.

The idea of using Blake’s verses from the preface to Milton as song lyrics was suggested to Parry by English Poet Laureate Robert Seymour Bridges.

Bridges envisioned the song as a moving piece of musical propaganda, part of the patriotic, pro-war “Fight for Right” movement designed to help revive public support for Britain’s involvement in World War I. 

Hubert Parry had a somewhat different vision for how his song would be remembered.

His wife, Elizabeth, was involved in the women’s suffrage movement and he strongly supported giving women the right to vote.

With Hubert’s blessing, the song was adopted as an inspirational anthem by British women’s suffrage groups, who won their fight for women’s voting rights in 1918.

On March 13, 1918, Parry staged a highly visible performance of his song at London's Albert Hall to celebrate the culmination of the “Votes for Women” campaign.

Later, “Jerusalem” became a general, patriotic British anthem.

And, although it is not technically a Christian hymn, it is often sung as one at many churches in England.

For decades, “Jerusalem” has also been sung by audiences at the end of the “Last Night of the Proms,” the final concert in the series of annual “Henry Wood Promenade Concerts” presented by the BBC.

The song is also frequently sung at cricket and rugby games, like the “Star-Spangled Banner” is sung at American baseball games.

In recent years it has become popular with environmentalists for the lyrics invoking the ideal of a “green and pleasant land.”

It’s also said to have been a favorite of an earlier brand of nature lovers in the so-called “Naturist Movement” (i.e., nudists), due to a legend that a visitor to William Blake’s home once found him and his wife sunning themselves nude in their garden.

Hundreds of recordings of “Jerusalem” have been made over the decades. Many have been posted on YouTube.

My personal favorite is the version by Billy Bragg, on his 1990 album, The Internationale.

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