“Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand”
Can I be frank for a moment? I love the poetry of William Blake, but I hate the hymn that Hubert Parry turned it into. It takes the words of one of England’s greatest artistic mavericks – a man utterly removed from polite literary society with mad, even dangerous, ideas about God and the world – and it turns it into a pompous dirge. It’s something I find again and again in the English popular music of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries: an emotional disconnect, where the words saying one thing, and the music saying something else.
Yes, Parry’s music is rousing, comforting, grand but yet not dazzling or unexpected. I can imagine a camera panning across Yorkshire dales or Dorset fields, with a Dimbleby providing clipped BBC narration. It could be written for a 1950s British war movie. It encourages, maybe even demands, your bosom to swell with pride at being British, whether you are or not. And it definitely does not do anything unusual or innovative that might make you start to question this, to analyse the words being sung.
And do the words match this sentiment? No. The words are fucking insane. I love them, but I love them because they come from a man with a radical, perhaps even paranoid, vision of Heaven and Hell. Bring me my bow, my arrows, my spear, chariots of fire. (Ah, Chariots of Fire. What a lovely film. With that nice young Nigel Havers. No. It’s a chariot. A war vehicle – a precursor to the jeep or armoured car. And it’s on fucking fire. This is an apocalyptic vision.) This is about building a wildly romanticised version of a real city, and not with bricks and beams and ropes, or blueprints and teams and institutions… but with weapons. This is the song you reach for, a century later, when you want to justify ‘civilising’ the world through the British Empire. When you want to essentially reproduce the Roman culture that Jesus stood opposed to. This is the repurposing of Blake’s vision into Doublespeak of the highest order.
And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.
Credits & Copyright
Words by William Blake. Traditional, adapted and recorded by James Bell in September 2018. Released in September 2018. (P) House of Lyra.
Tune Sources: Magna gaudens gaudio & a late medieval ductia (that I can’t find a URL for)