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‘Jerusalem’ – a Song, an Idea, Few Can Resist

James Murray-White reflects on the enduring, but shifting, resonance of Blake's famous lines on 'Jerusalem' for visions of 'England's green and pleasant land.' His choice of this iconic poem also introduces the launch of Finding Blake's series of powerful readings of this and other Blake poems, which we recorded in Blake's house in South Molton Street, London.

This month on Finding Blake we’re launching a series of eight short video posts featuring readings of some of Blake’s best known poems.

We took actor Matt Ray Brown to London recently to film him reading these poems in Blake’s flat in South Molton Street. In this exclusive series, filmed and sound recorded by Finding Blake’s Jonnie Howard, we showcase eight pieces — some well known, some not so well known — and delight in that they are being read probably in the very place they were written!

We will start the series with Matt’s powerful reading of Jerusalam, Blake’s most famous poem; so do watch out for that in the next few days. In the meantime, I wanted to share my own reflections on what that poem has come to mean in different contexts today.


I recently watched this new version of composer Hubert Parry’s interpretation of Blake’s Jerusalem:

In this version, featuring athlete Jazmin Sawyers singing the poem, musician Tokio Myers interprets it as the anthem ushering the England Team into the recent Commonwealth Game. The athletes stand by, humming the words as a chorus, rather unsuccessfully I feel (you may differ, and other versions of the same arrangement are available).

However, it stands as yet another take on the anthemic nature of the words, and the unusual way Blake has been taken to the heart (possibly quite a superficial heart) of the British nation. And of British culture — whatever that means, particularly in these difficult Brexit days as we try to understand a national psyche. So Jerusalem is sung at the Last Night of the Proms in the Albert Hall; it’s sung by the Women’s Institute at their annual general meeting, and by rugby players and old Etonians at their dinners; and in the piece below, featured in a Classic FM post, we travel from the pomp and spectacle of a Royal Wedding no less, to the continued ignominy of more sports stars mugging it for the cameras, led by a pretty terrified looking soprano:

Are we a nation that constantly needs a rallying call to the depths of ourselves to build a better place around us? And if so — and if Parry’s version keeps getting trundled out and we use it as a national salve — why haven’t we built Jerusalem here, in England’s green and pleasant land?

Why do we build on the countryside, allowing our cities to expand? Why do we value industry — any industry, from mining, through the exploitation of labour, to the current media industry and coming obsession with digital technologies and artificial intelligence — over rural agrarian values, or simple spiritual inquiry?

From my experience a few years ago, deep in a Sussex woodland (see The Unfolding and Unveiling) bringing forth these lyrics amongst a group of ‘we once were strangers and now we’re friends’ festival-goers, to seeing all these versions online, it feels that Blake has caught the culture, and the culture has caught a small, fragmented part of him and his experience and vision. Finding Blake continues and honours that.

And for the record, my favourite version is as arranged by folk singer and musician Chris Wood, who has kindly allowed us to use the opening bars on some of our clips. Chris has been deeply influenced by Blake and by fellow poet John Clare: their empathy for the man in the street, the simplicity and ability to look deeply at every situation, every moment. I love the slower, measured pace of Chris’s version – it seems to encourage, while remaining rooted in a pastoral idyll. This is exemplified in this performance, filmed in the wonderful Green Backyard, a few miles up the road from me in Peterborough. Rather that than imperious Britain at its worst, pulling itself up by the short and curlies in the midst of the battlefields and times of despair that our corrupt leaders have walked us into……..

Shine Forth.


Notes

This recent post at Interesting LiteratureA Short Analysis of William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, does it what it says on the can and looks at the meaning of the words. Is it a patriotic paean to England or,  perhaps, scathing satire? Interesting Literature also discusses other Blake poems, A Poison Tree and London, and is well worth checking out.

Poet Niall McDevitt, in his piece Urban shaman and psychogeographer,  signposted on our Blakean Articles page, says of Jerusalem: “Blake is a British-Israelite who sees ancient parallels between Albion and the Holy Land. His hymn Jerusalem is such a powerful statement of this belief that it unites all the warring factions of his country, and draws in everyone. Though unofficial, it must be the finest national anthem available to humanity. What could be more charmingly perverse than a national anthem which contains the word ‘satanic’ and which is named after somewhere else? … Despite his British-Israelism, there is no doubt that if Blake were alive today he would look upon modern Jerusalem with despair, and would be furious at the conditions in which Palestinians are forced to live.”

And musician Jah Wobble said that “For years, people were telling me that I’d love William Blake, but I had never felt like poetry related to me. When I thought of Blake I thought of Jerusalem and Last Night of the Proms and all that flag-waving, which put me off … I don’t think anybody really understands Blake. Songs of Innocence and of Experience seems pretty straightforward, but even there if you scratch the surface it gets really heavy. He’s been hijacked by retired colonels in Surrey who think he represents their Albion, and he absolutely doesn’t. Blake was nonconformist and imaginative and rule-breaking. If Blake had been my age in the 1970s, he would have been on the punk scene, without a doubt. He was a regular London bloke who worked for a living.” You can find Perspectives: Jah Wobble, musician, on William Blake via our Blakean Articles.

 

 

Modest Things

Finding Blake is delighted to welcome artist, musician, illustrator, songwriter and poet Salli Hipkiss, who has very generously offered a poem she wrote in 2017. Modest Things brings her life-long love of William Blake to her growing concern with the problems of climate change and other environmental threats to human and other life.

As with many children, I first encountered Blake when my primary school teacher read The Tyger aloud in class. I remember being awed by the vivid creature that formed clearly in my imagination, and also being a little shocked and thrilled by the mis-rhyme of “eye” and “symmetry” which hinted that the rules of language were far from set in stone.

As an ‘A’ level English and Art student, Blake appeared again and I enjoyed responding visually, carving a mahogany dragon knotted around a wax rose inspired by The Sick Rose as part of my sculpture course. I feel I grew up with Blake. Since those beginnings I have continued to feel a strong kinship with the way he moves fluidly between vision, language, poetry, and advocacy — between eye and ear and mind and heart. 

The Sick Rose (Songs of Innocence and of Experience)
by William Blake , ca. 1825
Medium: Relief etching printed in orange-brown ink and hand-colored with watercolor and gold
Public Domain: The Met Museum, New York
www.metmuseum.org

I went on to gain a degree in Fine Art and Art History from Goldsmiths College and later an MA in Children’s Book Illustration from Cambridge School of Art. I have worked as an art teacher at home and internationally. 

I am also drawn to Blake’s sense of an innate justice, especially his railing against forces which rob people of their natural, creative life paths and individual flourishing, or nature of its natural expression and abundance:  “A Robin Red breast in a Cage/ Puts all Heaven in a Rage”. And I delight in exploring the universal in his more mystical lines.

The poem I am thrilled to be sharing here was written in March 2017 in response to my own musing — and attempt not to be despairing — about the magnitude of the environmental problems facing our planet today. Seeking intuitively to find an imaginative, inner mentor to help grapple with these issues I found myself asking the question: “What would William Blake have done?” I felt a pulse of excitement as I recognised this could be the first line of a poem and I crafted the rest of the poem from there. I am very happy to discover the Finding Blake website and her community of like minds and feel honoured to be asked to share my work here. Thank you.

Modest Things  


What would William Blake have done when faced with climate change?
Would he have balked at mills rolled out at scales
His pastoral demons never could have seen?                                   
Should we be kinder to our visionaries living now?
Those with imaginations wide enough to see the enormity of what might loom:
(The unmarked loss of countless furred and scaled and feathered kin);
Those with ears that hear too loud
The faltering beats – yes, hearts as well – as Evolution fails her prismatic wings?
 
And oh how highly we value our Van Goghs now!
But a heart that flowers golden;            
An acute feeling for stars;
An affinity with infinity:
These are senses that can crack a soul too wide open
If not comforted and contained by softer, closer loves.
           
And so I take my garden patch, my childrens’ corner plot,
And pour into those earthen hands as many seeds and roots and worms as I can find.
I watch as dust and rain and sunshine gather in and cradle all these modest things;
Tendrils climb and walls turn green with shiny hearts that hold a Wren.           
What I can I do to help stall Evolution’s spin,
With pen and can and hoe and taking time to show
That trees that reach so high into the stars
Must grow deep roots to balance them below.


Salli Hipkiss ©1st March 2017. All rights reserved.

Notes

Salli Hipkiss is a poet, writer, artist, songwriter, and singer who for fifteen years has worked freelance as a creative practitioner and teacher/advocate of arts and sustainability, recently alongside being a full-time home-schooling Mum. Salli’s creative work has moved between art, music, illustration, songwriting, poetry, novel-writing and more.  She is passionate about human creativity and individual flourishing, and about environmental sustainability and regeneration, and is curious about how the two areas can be symbiotic, leading to a holistic vision of wellbeing. Some of her portfolio can be explored on her website: www.sallihipkiss.com

Millefleurs 2004 © Salli Hipkiss
sallihipkiss.com

 

 

Reflections on ‘Infant Joy’ and ‘Infant Sorrow’

Our latest contributing - author, storyteller, writer and educator - Marion Leeper reflects on her childhood, teenage and adult encounters with William Blake through two of his paired poems from Songs of Innocence and of Experience.

You don’t need to be a scholar or an expert to find a connection to Blake’s poetry. These two short poems have grown with me all my life.

I first met Infant Joy aged about six: I had to copy it, in careful copperplate, for handwriting practice. It wasn’t until I went to college that I discovered Infant Sorrow.

Infant Sorrow

‘Infant Sorrow’
Artist: William Blake
Image (public domain): Wikipedia

My mother groand! my father wept.
Into the dangerous world I leapt:
Helpless, naked, piping loud;
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.

These words mirrored how I saw my teenage self, a free soul leaping into the world, struggling my way to freedom and adulthood from the fetters of family life.

Struggling in my fathers hands:
Striving against my swaddling bands:
Bound and weary I thought best
To sulk upon my mothers breast.

It was the second verse, though, that spoke to me as a young mother, discovering how powerful a baby is, a being that can be too much for two grown adults, in the sleep-deprived stretches of the night. Blake looks so intensely into the moment: he captures exactly the way a baby lifts up its head to look out at the world, but then, finding the effort too much, falls back and nuzzles the mother’s shoulder.

Infant Joy

Infant Joy’
Artist: William Blake
Source (public domain): Wikipedia (click image to link)

Infant Joy, that piece of copperplate writing, took me much longer to love. My tutor at college warned me not to underrate Songs of Innocence. Misery and experience are easy to put into words: innocence is much harder. I didn’t buy it. Infant Joy seemed banal and sentimental to me.

I have no name,
I am but two days old --
What shall I call thee?

But when I started teaching, I began to understand the poem’s power. The poet asks questions of the child – ‘What shall I call thee?’ – and listens to the answer!

I happy am
Joy is my name --
Sweet joy befall thee!

An adult valuing a child’s ideas: that seemed to me a radical idea in education then, and – with a recent Ofsted report questioning the value of play in the education of young children – no less radical now. Blake, who saw angels on every tree on Peckham Rye, depicts a baby’s smile, an infant’s knowledge of joy, as a precious gift for humanity.

Pretty Joy,
Sweet joy but two days old,
Sweet joy I call thee;
Thou dost smile,
I sing the while,
Sweet joy befall thee.

The infants in both poems are born rich, strong and powerful, to borrow a phrase from the educators of Reggio Emilia. The babe in Infant Sorrow is already bound: like too many children still today, destined for a life of hardship simply by the situation into which they are born. But the child in Infant Joy, with an adult that recognises and shares in that joy, symbolises a hope for the future.

My tutor was right. It’s too easy to accept the bound child. It’s much harder to fight for the innocent child, and their right to a world of joy. That’s why I think Blake deserves to be celebrated now, this poet who can see heaven in a grain of sand: the hardships and social injustices which cut him like knives are still hurting us today. But Blake sees beyond them to what might be, and tells us, loud and clear, that we don’t have to put up with injustice.


Notes

Marion Leeper is a storyteller, writer and educator. Based in Cambridge, England, she grew up in a family of actors, raconteurs, tellers of tall tales and downright liars. She has been listening to and telling stories (true and less true) for longer than she can remember. She tells stories for children of all ages, and specialises in multi-sensory storytelling for the very young and for people with learning difficulties. She has toured her adult shows to clubs and festivals around the country and internationally. Based in Cambridge, Marion and her amazing story mat are familiar visitors to museums, schools and libraries around the region. You can find out more at marionleeperstoryteller.co.uk

Stories in the Dark, from Marion Leeper

The Reggio Emilia approach to preschool and primary education is a student-centered philosophy. “At its core is an assumption that children form their own personality during early years of development and are endowed with ‘a hundred languages’, through which they can express their ideas. The aim of the Reggio approach is to teach how to use these symbolic languages (e.g., painting, sculpting, drama) in everyday life. It was developed after World War II by psychologist Loris Malaguzzi and parents in the villages around Reggio Emilia, Italy, and derives its name from the city.” (Wikipedia) You can discover more at the Reggio Children website, where you will also find The Hundred Languages, a poem by Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of Reggio Emilia’s educational philosophy (translated by Lela Gandini).

You can find many of William Blake’s poems, including Infant Sorrow and Infant Joy at pages listed in our More Resources pages.