Thursday, May 01, 2008

And did those feet

So, the Dean of Southwark has banned the use of the William Blake Hymn "And did those feet..." from Southwark Cathedral. Time, it seems, to write a protest in defence of that great hymn on this Blog. The campaign is, of course, not helped by the rather ill-informed and badly written article by Julian Lloyd Webber in the Daily Telegraph.

Here are my thoughts:

Sadly, William Blake's great mystical hymn of 1804 has become a rarity. There is a widespread suspicion that something must be wrong with it, clearly aggravated by the fact that it appears as an afterthought in the English Hymnal, numbered 656a, words only without a tune. However, this is not actually a mark of disgrace: rather it stems from the fact that the first edition of the English Hymnal appeared in 1906, ten years before Sir Hubert Parry wrote the tune Jerusalem which turned Blake's poem into an inspiring hymn. The revised edition (1933) had a policy of neither adding hymns nor changing numbers; hence the editors compromised, tacking on the words of 'Jerusalem' at the end. So far from relegating an embarrassing hymn, this was the only new hymn that they saw fit to add in 1933.

So what explains the current reluctance to use it? I guess it stems from a misapplied "political correctness" which takes the hymn to be patriotic in flavour and faintly jingoistic. In fact, that assumption is quite mistaken, in terms both of what Blake was trying to say, and of what the hymn has traditionally stood for. It entered Church use from a quasi-secular use in liberal politics and the fight for votes for women; indeed a socialist message is quite properly at least one of the meanings identifiable in the poem, which calls us to stand up for social justice and freedom, thereby incarnating a New Jerusalem in a transfiguration of our society, where currently the 'dark satanic mills', of injustice, oppression and the dire conditions of industrial workers, take the place of what might have been a 'green and pleasant land' free of oppression, poverty or injustice. The metaphorical weapons (bow, arrows, spear and chariot of fire) are not the weapons of war, but the armour of Christ, the social gospel, prayer and active commitment in the political context where we belong. The poem says 'England', an identity that we rarely give ourselves these days, but we might just as well think of Cambridge, or Liverpool, or London, or Britain, as the context where we hope to realise God's vision for those around us.

There is also another way of reading the poem, which stresses not so much the call to political reform as the importance of aesthetic beauty, love, imagination and poetry. On this reading, our clouded hills and dark satanic mills are the philistine values of an industrial society imbued with utilitarianism: science and economic materialism have excluded intuition and beauty.

Blake deplored the cold logical approach of philosophers such as Bacon and Locke, and here he issues an impassioned plea for vision and beauty to be restored to our lives. What green and pleasant land do we have left, if we no longer encounter the vision of Christ among us?

The poem starts with a rhetorical question: 'And did those feet, in ancient times, walk upon England's mountains green?'. The question is never answered: Blake does not say that we certainly did once have a society in which the holy lamb of God appeared, as we now hope that he will. We might answer that perhaps we never did (the story is based on an old legend according to which Jesus did visit England, but the hymn doesn't say we are supposed to believe the legend); but all the same, whether we did or not, the legend that, perhaps, once it was so can inspire us to hope that that vision is still realistic, and that we have strength and will-power to see it made real.

All falls into place if we locate this hymn in the context of Christ's transfiguration, for the poem is about transfiguration: transfiguring our world, so that Christ himself can appear, as formerly he did upon the mountain. The countenance divine did not just appear once-upon-a-time on the Mount of Olives, nor is it confined to ancient and curious legends about Jesus sailing with Joseph of Arimathea (supposedly a tin-merchant) to Cornwall. It can be here now, if only we are prepared to see it shine forth among us.

8 comments:

Tenon_Saw said...

Thank you for these thoughts about 656a. I've known this hymn most of my life i.e. getting on for 50 years. At secondary school the Divinity teacher (yes that's what RE/RS was called there) used to introduce this hymn with the words, "Our hymn this morning is number 656a 'Jerulsaem'. May I remind you, gentlemen, that the answer to the question posed in the first verse is 'No'".
It was an honour to play the piano for this hymn; a sign that one had come of age as a pianist at the school. The Head of Music was not a pianist and had arranged an 'easy play' version for himself.
Since those days I've played it many times at weddings but encounters had gradually reduced in number over the years until I moved to my present Prep school where it is sung regularly, but not very well. One member of staff refuses to sing it for various reasons. I do think the words are largely misunderstood - I haven't always been clear what they mean myself.

Actually, far too many hymns really do need to be explained before young people sing them and I feel this is becoming a reason for NOT singing them in some places of worship, where they prefer a short ditty to ludicrous music. In my case, I just accepted that they were good hymns, with good tunes, and the appreciation has grown over the years. I fear we do not live in this kind of society where this can happen any more. To some extent JLW had a point in part of the article to which you provided a link.

Anonymous said...

In penultimate sentence read 'the' for 'this'.

Catherine Osborne said...

That comment from Anon seems to refer to the penultimate sentence of Tenon Saw's comment, not to the post. I thought I'd just say that to save you spending a lot of time looking in more than one place...

Virginia said...

A few years ago the vicar of Cheadle objected to this hymn, and when giving his reasons, cited among them a particular incident in Blake's life. Once a friend called on Blake, and found him and his wife sitting in their garden, minus their clothes; he was told that they were trying to imagine what the Garden of Eden might have been like.

Now while this behaviour is eccentric (in a rather English sort of way!) it doesn't strike me as either wicked or unChristian. I wonder whether the vicar of Cheadle had ever tried to imagine what Paradise was like?

Furthermore, are we only to accept hymns as singable after a careful scrutiny of the private lives of their authors to make sure they were in a state of grace when they wrote them? Where would that end?

berenike said...

I did this one for St George's day in a college chapel in Austria - the Swiss chaplain heard it for the first time in his life when he toddled in as we were having a quick run-through, and demanded that we do it at the end of Mass as well as at the beginning. It, well, it rocks.

Jane Badger said...

When I was at university in the 1980s, the Christian Union (of which I was a member) didn't sing this hymn as it wasn't considered "sound". I thought then, and think now, that this entirely missed the point of this hymn, which as you say starts with a rhetorical question. The hymn has now thankfully reappeared in Complete Anglican Hymns Old and New, and makes a very regular (very, very regular in fact)appearance in our services.

Virginia said...

Common Praise for some reason has 'these dark satanic mills' not 'those'. I didn't see very many in the immediate surroundings of St Alban's Cathedral, which was where I sang it today.

Matthew said...

"Jerusalem" was my grandfather's favourite hymn. We don't sing it much here in Canada, but I've always understood it to refer to the working out of the Kingdom of God here on earth and to have nothing to do with the British Empire. To think so would be to verge on illiteracy, I think, because the plain meaning of the words does not support any such interpretation.