Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White reviews two recent books on Blake’s poem ‘Jerusalem’, from Jason Whittaker and Edwin John Lerner, exploring Blake’s work and its adaptations as both story and as mental fight.
I’m [re]minded to start this review of two recent books on Blake’s Jerusalem after hearing further controversy on the radio this morning of the trustees of Blake’s cottage in Felpham — where William and Catherine lived between 1800-1803, and he wrote the words for the poem — appealing for further funds (£3 million, I believe) to save the structure from collapse. I have mixed feelings about this trend for writers’ houses to become shrines, unless they offer something really different and entirely in keeping with the visions and aspirations of the artist who lived and created there. The original ambitions of these trustees, at least on their website, were articulated very curiously and boldly, but as time has progressed, while their ownership of the cottage is secure this mirrors the bricks, mortar, beams and thatch becoming more precarious, and the whole project has become more mired in human shenanigans. And now this further appeal for cash.
But, I’ll return to that later.
Professor Jason Whittaker’s book, Jerusalem: Blake, Parry, and the fight for Englishness, is a big, bold exploration that uses Blake’s work as a touchstone for a look at what constitutes Englishness today. I’m a big fan and friend of Jason’s — I admire his journey as a scholar through ‘popular’ culture and his brilliant articulation of how creativity holds the mirror up to us, for better and often for worse. His work in Blake studies, most notably the website Zoamorphosis has been truly inspiring. Particularly the groundbreaking, immediately post-lockdown online Blake symposium, Global Blake, which brought scholars from all over the world and so many disciplines together in virtual space to show how Blake’s work and the artist’s presence in the world has touched into and influenced so many corners, people, and places. And as I type I remember there are many presentations I want to return to and watch again on their archive. ‘Finding Blake’ was screened as part of the event, with a Q&A between Jason and me available somewhere there too.
The second book in this beautiful mix is Jerusalem: The story of a song by Edwin John Lerner. A tour guide and writer from Sussex, he wrote it during lockdown after having been invited into the cottage by the trustees. Lerner articulates his love of the myths of King Arthur and Glastonbury, and indeed the publisher, Chronos, is a historical non-fiction imprint.
So right from the off, I note we are dealing with both a ‘story’ (Lerner), and a ‘fight’ (Whittaker), and am intrigued where both may lead us. I love that two books on this deep subject arrive at roughly the same time — and hopefully, more to come.
Englishness — imagination and aspiration
Starting with Lerner’s Jerusalem, the author quickly flies through a useful potted history of Blake’s life and times, describing his journeying between London and Felpham and back — no more or less than other biographies but with a more specific look at the writing of the epic poem itself in Chapter 8, ‘Journeying to Jerusalem’. He then unleashes what is clearly his true passion; a deeper history of the place and mythological culture of Glastonbury, with all the legends and layered perspectives upon this wonderful Somerset town.
There is so much within this book, it’s clear he has much to share and bottomless energy to delve away into whatever takes his fancy. I learned so much about the composers Elgar and Parry — more than I feel I needed to. I found irksome the amount of space he devotes to the film Calendar Girls: it randomly crops up as an aside in the introduction, then gets almost a whole chapter later. Again, the connection between the original ownership of the song by the Women’s Institute and how they have used it, and as a metaphor for women’s suffrage, in Lerner’s hands all this history becomes too dense.
Given that the Finding Blake project on our website here has been developed because of the finding of the location of Blake’s mortal remains, I was dismayed to read his aside about this tremendous piece of detective work by Luis and Carol Garrido as “rather morbid” (p.14). Finding the location of the remains and the history of how they came to be lost, has in my opinion, sparked a wave of new interest in Blake since 2018, and has been entirely positive in bringing his legacy higher in the mind’s eye of the cultured public. It has also brought interest in Catherine, his wife and muse, which I feel has catalysed the Blake Society to also get behind honouring her remains with a new grave, and promoting her as well.
That aside, Lerner is a gifted storyteller, with a passion to weave his knowledge together and bring us a layered backdrop to how the poem became a song, and how it has filtered through elements of society, class, culture — and all our peculiar British institutionalisation of ourselves — with all the ramifications of imagination and aspiration, and how we all may interpret differently.
What I feel he doesn’t do well is filter out some of the padding, or hone all this research down into a strong and cohesive narrative. Where he writes to excess on the history and outcomes of the three Olympic Games London has hosted, he loses this reader. When he is sleuthing around Elgar’s house, Brinkwells, in deepest wooded Sussex, or Parry’s Grade 1 listed 800-year-old pile, Shulbrede Priory, Lerner brings colour to his mapping, but I wonder if he’s just filling more pages for the sake of it.
“… the words of Jerusalem are easy to remember and it was not too much of a stretch to shoehorn them into an anthem sung to promote the cause of female suffrage. That is the great beauty of Jerusalem: it could be adopted by radicals and conservatives alike, both camps finding something in it to support their preferences. Radicals love Blake’s mystical worldview and his outsider status. Conservatives love the patriotism. Both sides enjoy belting out a good song.” (p. 77)
A second Bleakean clip on the radio this morning touches into this deep dive: ‘The Barmy Army’ are musical supporters of the English cricket team, cheering the team on and buoying up the crowd of supporters. As the Test Match is underway, Billy was invited on to national morning radio to play Jerusalem on trumpet — to inspire the rest of us to continue with “mental fight”?
I will not cease from mental fight
Whittaker’s book, however, is much more details-focused and, with his academic eye and gift for exposition, is framed upon his argument that Blake and Parry’s versions of Jerusalem are both strange and at the same time familiar to those who invoke its vision. Whittaker is not shy from getting into the Brexit debate and seeking to untangle the poem/hymn from its use in that thorny arena, and its hijacking by a right-wing agenda for a nationalist view of what might constitute Englishness. Here’s a scholar willing to use his skills in a fight to rescue a cultural hijack.
Before he unpicks that, I really like chapter 5: ‘Bring me my bow: Empire’s End 1945-1976’, as he gets into the diversity of representations of the song across many mediums. He has done extensive listening to probably every recording and rendition, from folk versions (I looked for ages for British folk busker Don Partridge’s version but alas could not find it), to how it has been used in various films, theatre productions — including the magnificent ‘Jerusalem’ (2009) by Jez Butterworth, also reviewed by me on this site — books and every medium that exists. The level of detail he pours into this is extraordinary, and he makes his research a seamless river of creativity, with every nuance explored — from David Bowie and Mark E. Smith, to Morrissey’s caustic interventions.
He clearly differentiates between highbrow and pop culture, and uses of the words and themes, and dives into what resonates. I share this quote from singer Chris Wood, whose 2013 version I deeply love:
“It’s not the voice of many but a solitary voice. It’s the voice of a human reaching into himself to find a reason to carry on. The voice of a man shaken by the depth of indifference the world has for him and all that he believes in.” Chris Wood, None The Wiser.
There’s a willingness throughout the work that is not afraid to highlight the darkness inherent in Blake’s vision, which Parry’s hymn largely glossed over in its big-picture pitch for identity rooted in place. Whittaker knows it in Blake’s bigger work, and crucially he highlights where artists (of all genres) find it too and respond to it, as with Wood, and Marc Almond’s 2014 The Tyburn Tree (Dark London) (with John Harle). I’d like to highlight his elucidation of the inspiring writer Ben Okri’s 1999 poetry collection Mental Fight, which universalises Blake’s desire into a clarion call “to everyone, especially those who have been oppressed in any way, to engage in mental fight, to rise from a fallen state into redemption”.
Whittaker works hard to rebut the darkness of Blake-Parry’s hymn being adopted by the far right as well as the lumpen middle (in my view exemplified as much by the paradox of ‘New Labour’ as by the current Conservative government and the dying kicks of capitalism itself) and then dissects its tragic entwining around the paradigm of Brexit, and where the reality of this leaves us culturally with all our human friends in any other country around this world.
To zoom in upon the specifics, back to Felpham and the area around Blake’s cottage and the origin of the work, I find it tragic to read that:
“The Arun District, of which Felpham is a part, voted by nearly two-thirds to leave the EU in 2016, one of many towns and regions dissatisfied with modern life, part of which dissatisfaction was the desire to ‘take back control’ of a modern world which seemed to have changed beyond all recognition.” (p. 194)
Awake! Awake! Awake!
I lived in the city of Jerusalem for five years, and while my time there felt very vibrant and energising, the divisions within the city — nationalities, contested spaces, polarities between right and left, religious and secular, notions of ‘holy’ and ‘unholy’ — and (for me) the impact of all this upon the land and all the natural resources, made me examine this intense focus upon this place, and the value of that.
Whittaker refers to the “multiple battle lines” of the fight for the meaning of Englishness. Blake wasn’t wanting to replicate a place but something inherent in its spiritual underpinning, and this now to me feels an issue that Parry’s version ignores, or that much of the recent appropriations fail to see. The aim and ethos were never about a physicality, but about our shared humanness and the values we have as a species. And whether we have enough integrity and connection to the divine to ascend those steps or staircase into Blake’s vision of the eternal. It’s crucial to stress the brilliance in Blake’s work at pointing us to an interiority that needs to be found — the mental fight, and wielding the sword within, and without. Awake! Awake! Awake!
Concluding, I think again of the cottage in Felpham where Blake birthed this epic.
While Jerusalem is entwined with our cultural psyche, as explored through these two works, what of the bricks and mortar, with its mixed history and its place in the present, and all the future dreaming that creatives, directors, architects and historians can do? Is it simply about the money, or the will? Does three million quid to save, restore and revamp feel justified right now? I don’t need to write of the straitened times of this age, as we’re all in it and swamped or touched in some way. Britain right now feels divided, and the national psyche ruptured. Awake! Awake! Awake!
Beneath the 1804 poem, Blake inscribed a Biblical quotation:
“Would to God that all the Lords people were Prophets” (Numbers XI. Ch 29.)
Jason Whittaker’s Blake, Parry, and the fight for Englishness is published by Oxford University Press (UK, 2022).
Edwin John Lerner’s Jerusalem: the story of a song is published by Chronos Books (UK, 2022).
Zoamorphosis – The William Blake Blog is devoted to the afterlife and reception of Blake’s art and poetry, looking at how generations of writers, artists, musicians and other cultural figures have adapted his ideas. And the associated Global Blake is an international network of scholars working on William Blake and all aspects of his poetry and art.
You can find Jason Whittaker’s Global Blake interview with James Murray-White here on YouTube, and James’s review On Jez Butterworth’s ‘Jerusalem’ & Our Fallacy of Albion here on Finding Blake.