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.