Originally published in the King’s Stanley Magazine.
It was twenty years ago. I was with a group from England attending the Kirchentag, a German church convention held every two years and which attracts tens of thousands of people from around the world. We were on a crowded railway platform heading for the conference centre. Some groups were singing and our party was asked to sing something. We had a quick conflab and came up with “Cwm Rhonnda”, that hymn beloved of Welsh rugby fans. None of us were Welsh, but we did our best and were applauded for our efforts.
We were all English, so why on earth didn’t we sing “Jerusalem”?
I have been reminded of this incident for two reasons.
Firstly, I discovered that “Jerusalem” has recently been voted “the nation’s favourite hymn.”
Secondly, I came across Anne Harrison’s recent letter to The Times. I quote:
“It (the stirring music) was created in 1916 for meetings of the “Fight for Right” movement, which aimed to raise morale in the Great War. The Poet Laureate sent Blake’s verses to the composer Sir Hubert Parry, whose setting rapidly became a success.”
The nation’s favourite hymn? That came as a surprise as I don’t think it even made the top ten a few years ago.
What does this tell us?
Perhaps it is a reminder of the decline in church attendance. Perhaps it is a reflection of recent political events and trends, a ‘sign of the times’ we live in.
How do you read it?
I was intrigued by a further comment from Anne Harrison’s letter:
“However, Parry grew wary of jingoism and in 1917 withdrew his composition from Fight for Right. It was then taken up by the women’s movement.”
We are coming up to Remembrance, and as I write we may or may not leave the EU on 31st October. “Jerusalem” has been voted the nation’s favourite hymn, yet Parry “grew wary of jingoism”.
What of Blake’s verses, with their opening questions and then that powerful image of “those dark satanic mills”?
Blake posed four questions in the first verse, preparing the way for the great challenge of his second verse, namely that of building “Jerusalem” in “England’s green and pleasant land.”
Is that a narrow jingoistic vision, or is it a far broader one?
I prefer the second option because of the following verses that we often hear at Remembrance:
“They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift sword against nation nor ever again be trained for war.”
The lines are taken from Isaiah chapter 2 and Micah chapter 4 and both originally occur in the context of the nations going up to the city of Jerusalem.
Recently, social media had an infamous post that began with the statement, “We didn’t win two World Wars…”
That first part is correct. After all, no one wins a war. It is also worth remembering that both in 1914 (Belgium) and 1939 (Poland), war was declared because the United Kingdom resolved to honour the pledge which it had given to those nations.
Remembrance calls many things to mind: courage, service, sacrifice etc. It also calls to mind internationalism, alliances, and the common good, ideas which Blake expressed as “building Jerusalem”, starting in this “green and pleasant land.”
With Christian love,