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……..
This recent post at Interesting Literature, A 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.