Bring no spears to 'Jerusalem'

The Church of Scotland is wrong to gang up on William Blake's best loved lyric, argues John Walsh

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The priests have done for William Blake again. Blake, the most incandescently religious of English poets, disliked priests and saw them as the bureaucrats of divinity, and the guardians of arbitrary moral codes. In "The Garden of Love", one of his Songs of Experience, the poet discovers "a chapel" squatting on the garden where he used to play as a child; now "priests in black gowns were walking their rounds/And binding with briars my joys and desires". And more than a hundred years later, the priests are ganging up on Blake's most famous lyric, "Jerusalem".

"The tune is wonderful but there are problems with the words," declared the Rev Charles Robertson, secretary of the hymnary of the Church of Scotland, which has elected to drop it from future editions. "Most people who sing it don't know what the words mean." One can hear Blake's immortal shade stir faintly under its headstone in Bunhill Fields, EC1. Worse followed. Canon Donald Gray, chaplain to the Queen, flatly refused to let the hymn be sung at a memorial service in St Margaret's, Westminster, the parish church of Parliament. Why? Because, it seems, the words "dark satanic mills" suggest a prejudice against city dwellers, a non-PC predeliction for the "green and pleasant land" of rustic luxury and (by extension) the green belt, the country-house retreat, the rolling acres of feudalism.

The fact that Blake's great poem has absolutely nothing to do with such matters is not quite the point. People have been reading elaborately foolish things into its modest 16 lines for years. As a nation we have been obsessed with it, if only since 1916, when Sir Hubert Parry set it to music. And what music - those upwardly striving minor-key yearnings that build to a first, tentative major chord on "clouded hills", that extraordinarily satisfying hook-line, "Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand", which gathers all voices together like a huge wave drawing back for the climactic assault on four notes that simply walk down the scale, as if descending a ladder from Heaven: "Jer-u-sa-lem".

Sir Hubert meant it as a comfort in wartime, a promise that God had once rambled across England and would ramble there again, and this sweetly naive song of hope has echoed in British hearts all through the century. The spectacle of a thousand yeomen singing apparently in praise of the ancient city of Israel has always been a little eccentric, but somehow "Jerusalem" became cognate with everything decent, glorious, high-minded, God-fearing and brave. It became the anthem of the Women's Institute. It's a favourite of the Labour movement and is sung at party conferences every year. The Last Night of the Proms is unthinkable without its tear- jerking strains. London debutantes sing it when drunk.

Even its textual offshoots carry an iconic power: the movie Chariots of Fire pinched a line from the poem and added, to the cluster of peculiar images that surround its title, the image of a dozen skinny chaps in flapping white shorts running along a strand en route to a chapel. FR Leavis, the century's most controversial literary critic, called his autobiography Nor Shall My Sword... Mr Major should have built it into his list of forever- England essences, along with the warm beer and village cricket.

It has, of course, had its detractors. Composed in wartime, it was criticised as jingoistic. All those arrows and spears (and was it Boadicea's chariot?)... Despite Blake's assertion that it is "mental" fight he is keen on, despite the obvious symbolic properties of the weaponry, a feeling persists that he was recommending some sort of crusade against the infidel. (And while we're at it, the sexual symbolism has bothered many clerics in the past. "Arrows of desire"? "Bring me my spear"? And as for the sword that comes awake when he has his hand around it... )

The fog of exegetical confusion persisted in the letters that flooded in to this newspaper after the story broke. A row broke out over Lord Broadbridge's rude remarks about the incomprehensibility of Scotsmen. The Rev Keith Blackburn offered a simple gloss of the poem: "I have had difficulty in taking this hymn seriously since someone said to me, 'The answer to the first verse is "No" and to the second "Fetch them yourself'." One James Cole brought up the "British Israelite myth" which says all British Protestants are descended from the 10 lost tribes of Israel, but concluded that Blake's lyric was xenophobic, anti-Semitic and "totally loony". Elsewhere, priests recalled their distaste at watching members of the congregation gesticulating, rugby-dinner-style, during the singing of "Bring me my arrows of desire".

So what does it mean? The O-level reading of the poem suggests it is a simple, rapt speculation based on the story of Joseph of Arimathea (who was not Christ's uncle but leased his tomb to the dead redeemer), who allegedly visited England with the Holy Grail and planted his staff in the soil of Glastonbury. How close, asks Blake in the poem, were the ancient spirits of Albion to the early Christians? And therefore how close are we to God? The old problem of what Blake meant by "those dark, Satanic mills" has never been resolved. Did he mean real, industrial-revolution mills? Or the universities of Oxford and Cambridge? Or did he mean Protestant churches?

Personally, I think the poem is about two kinds of religious awareness - the dim, occluded, bovine, well-meaning English tradition (summed up by that word "pleasant") and the passionate, glorying, elemental, militant kind experienced by the Blakean visionary, linking directly back to the crucible of Christianity at the Resurrection. One is the cloud, the other the lightning. Blake simply wants the English congregation to raise their sense of what they are worshipping.

That's what "Jerusalem" is about, though the reasons why we love it have little to do with its meaning. But now that we all know, will it be enough to reinstate it in the Church of Scotland hymnal?

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