Thinking about last week’s British royal wedding and the upcoming visit of the queen. Last Friday night I sat down and watched a bit of the ceremony, and caught the singing of Jerusalem, where the camera focused on assorted faces of the British establishment: Elton John and his partner, the Beckhams, David Cameron, maybe William Hague too, and I can’t remember who else, probably some important people I wouldn’t recognise.
There are a few obvious points to be made about Jerusalem. First, as well as holding the status of a sort of unofficial national anthem, it’s also the hymn sung at the end of the Labour party conferences. As Polly Toynbee pointed out, neither of the past two Labour PMs was invited, even though the previous Tory PM John Major was. From the perspective of a meticulous wedding planner, the singing of Jerusalem combined with the exclusion of Labour party politicians, would be considered a deliberate and calculated assertion, on the part of the ruling elite, about who really owns Britain.
Second, it is a hymn of imperial conquest and dispossession. It was composed during the First World War, and its popularity grew during the period that the British Empire was occupying Jerusalem and facilitating the dispossession of the indigenous population of Palestine.
Simon Sebag Montefiore writes that
Blake’s poem, increasingly admired, was not widely known until World War I, when all these strands – the hymn, the British love of Jerusalem, the imperial British mission and evangelical vision of Jewish Return and Second Coming – came together. In 1916 the Poet Laureate Robert Bridges asked the composer Sir Hubert Parry to set Blake to music. Sir Edward Elgar orchestrated it and it was performed at a patriotic meeting, immediately becoming a hit.
At this point, David Lloyd George, wartime Prime Minister, was ordering General Allenby to advance into Palestine and conquer Jerusalem as a ‘Christmas present for the British nation’. Lloyd George admitted that ‘I was taught more in school about the history of the Jews than about my own land.’
He and his Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour backed the Jewish dream of a Jewish homeland – under British auspices. Indeed, cabinet minister Lord Curzon noted that ‘the Prime Minister talks about Jerusalem with almost the same enthusiasm as about his native Welsh hills!’
Third, it’s a poem by William Blake. Were Blake confronted with the spectacle of the Royal Wedding and the use of his words, he might be horrified, but might also repeat his own observation, albeit with a certan irony, that “Empire follows Art & Not Vice Versa”. It is not often that you feel the urge to cite comment threads on YouTube videos in approval, but this summary, from DaveUndertaker, which I came across this morning while looking to see the footage again, puts it well:
Words by William Blake from his epic about the republican Milton. 🙂
Blake wasn’t celebrating serfdom, suckers!!!!!
What would Blake have thought? Blake held that “codes given under pretence of divine command” were “what Christ pronounced them, The Abomination that maketh desolate, i.e., State Religion, which is the source of all Cruelty”.
His view of monarchy is fairly clear from the line in The Chimney Sweeper in Songs of Experience, referring to the parents who had
‘gone to praise God and his priest and king
Who make up a heaven of our misery’.
Surveying Blake’s annotations of the bishop of Llandaff, Saree Makdisi sees their great significance in
‘the sheer scale of Blake’s critique of authority, governmentality, and the moral virtues in these woefully underread notations. What the annotations confirm is that the continual reiteration of the formula for patriarchal power, “God & Priest & King”, which occurs throughout Blake’s work as the signifier of autocratic authority, is a denunciation of the power of authoritarian discipline and behavioral codes in any form, and not merely the highly restricted and narrowly conceived state-political authority of aristocratic government which was the target of the advocates of liberty’ (e.g. Thomas Paine).
He would have viewed the royal family, the assembled clergy, assembled Tory politicians, military top brass, and who knows, maybe Elton John and David Beckham, as the servitors of ‘the Beast and the Whore’.
Regarding the spectacle of the wedding itself, E.P. Thompson, in Witness Against The Beast, sees the skilled tradesman Blake’s ‘veritable signature’ in a ‘stubborn lack of social and intellectual deference’ with ‘that kind of cultural confidence and hostility to genteel hegemony which we have found in the sectarian traditions of radical Dissent’. Thompson writes:
‘When Bacon comments suavely that ‘triumphs, masks, feasts, weddings, funerals, capital executions and such shews…are not to be neglected’, Blake notes: ‘Bacon supposes that the Dragon Beast & Harlot are worthy of a Place in the New Jerusalem’.’
Blake’s ‘New Jerusalem’, then, which seems an entirely different Jerusalem to the one the Duke of Edinburgh was singing lustily about.
As it happens, I don’t think Blake envisages Jerusalem here as a fixed location at all, like some sort of shining city on a hill, as Ronald Reagan might put it. It seems to me more likely he is talking about a sort of anti-Empire State of Mind, and the recreation of a particular moment. Jerusalem‘s founding myth is that of the child Jesus visiting England with Joseph of Arimathea. Jerusalem, of course, is the scene of Jesus’s passion and crucifixion. So it seems to me that when he’s talking about Jerusalem being built in England, Blake may be asking if it was the child’s experience of England’s pleasantness that drew him to sacrifice his life in his confrontation with the priests, scribes and Roman imperial authorities. The famous ‘dark satanic mills’ are not merely places of hellish toil, but symbols, to use Althusser’s term, of ideological state apparatuses (for a discussion of these from a US standpoint in relation to the royal wedding, see here), through which the unitary, self-accusing (Satan means ‘accuser’) bourgeois subject is formed. Blake’s building of Jerusalem, then, may mean following in Jesus’s footsteps, but in England. Hence the resolve not to ‘cease from mental fight’ – there may be an allusion here also to Satan’s temptation of Jesus (which in some accounts, takes place over Jerusalem). I may be wrong, of course, but I think we can be very sure that what we are not talking about is some jingoistic celebration of English State Religion.
OK, I’m getting tired now, and am nowhere near the point, so this will need another post. Where I am going with this is the way power legitimates itself by embracing things that appear to stand in radical opposition to it. In some ways I think this is true about Jerusalem here, but it got me thinking about the forthcoming queen visit and how she will be going to the Garden of Remembrance and Croke Park, which are supposedly contentious sites of antagonism to literally everything the queen stands for. For this, the monarchy will be praised -by Ireland’s ideological state apparatuses- for its magnanimity and inclusiveness – that it can even come to terms with things that stand fundamentally opposed to it.