(The text of the poem can be found here.)
I admit to trying to read this more than 30 times and failing to even come close to what I was hoping to accomplish. I wanted to sound like a General. I would have accepted sounding like a Sergeant. I had made jokes to Maribou about how if, when she came home, I was shouting “NOR SHALL MY SWORD SLEEP IN MY HAND”, that everything was cool, I was just doing my next poem. Well, I didn’t even get halfway to what I wanted the poem to sound like. (My favorite take, still not even a C-, can be found here.)
William Blake is one of those awesome creators that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Shakespeare or Goethe. Amazingly prolific, exceptionally gifted, and insightful decades ahead of his time. A brilliant poet, a magnificent artist… He’s the best of the Romantics, if you ask me. (Check out his wiki page here… be sure to scroll down and read about his death. I was struck by envy.) Personally, I think that his greatest work is his illustrated “Milton: A Poem”. It’s absolutely mind-blowing and you can read the whole thing here (I prefer D to the others but I could see how someone might say that C was easier to read).
Heck, there’s a youtube out there that does a comparison of the whole thing to a beautiful song. Check it out if only to get an idea of Blake’s amazing art… and, after you’re done, we’ll get back to scratch the surface of the poem with his preface.
And now the Preface… Arthurian Legend has it that Jesus and Joseph of Arimathea visited Britain during Jesus’s “Lost Years” (and that Joseph’s son came back later on with The Holy Grail) and this poem is used as a meditation on that theory and then as a call to action. Jesus was here… we should build Jerusalem here (as opposed to those “dark satanic mills” we keep building).
When this little preface was printed smack dab in the middle of WWI as part of an anthology put together by Robert Bridges (the British Poet Laureate), Bridges saw that the preface would make for a perfect hymn and requested one of his friends to put it to music. Morale was slipping, you see. They wanted something to raise morale. Something properly British. This is what they got. As I’m sure you’ve seen, it took off. It’s now one of the hymns sung at such festivities as The Royal Wedding.
And as much as I love the poem and as much as I love the hymn, there’s a bit of an undercurrent to it that isn’t quite pleasant to my modern sensibility. You can hear echoes of The British Empire in the chords. You can hear the sabers rattle a little bit. Indeed, the first time I looked for “Jerusalem” on youtube, I thought I’d find Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s version (banned in England at the time, by the way) but instead found this:
This is a song that was written to help a country win a war and you cannot help but hear that in the chords.
I mean, honestly, before I started researching this poem, I just thought it was a lovely poem with a lovely hymn attached but, after getting elbows deep in it, I hear the war. The other day, in Mike Schilling’s “Heavenly” thread, we were discussing such things as “songs that have ruined lives” and dhex astutely pointed out that the National Anthem was one such song.
In that vein, I’d say that “Jerusalem” is another… which is such a strange place to end up from such a wonderful beginning.