As part of a recent visit to Scotland, I had the good fortune to attend the opening of the Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park, Glasgow. As a Scot by birth, it was a little galling when England finished the games as the top medal-winning nation. In all, Team England collected 58 gold medals (174 in total), whilst the second-placed nation, my adopted Australia, claimed 49 (137 in total). Actually, Scotland did rather well to finish fourth, with 19 gold medals (53 in total).
One consequence of England finishing first in 58 events was that Jerusalem was played 58 times, each time accompanied with the stadium announcer’s words “the national anthem of England”. Now, this was a bit of a surprise to me. Certainly, home matches involving England’s test cricket team have been notable for what one commentator has called “a rousing rendition of Jerusalem”, even as Twickenham rugby stadium often echoes to the strains of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”. However, Jerusalem as the English national anthem?
For those who may be unfamiliar with Jerusalem, it is a poem by William Blake called “And did those feet in ancient times” (rather appropriate when linked with sporting enterprise), printed in 1808 and put to music by Hubert Parry in 1916, then given the title Jerusalem. It has taken nearly one hundred years to gain recognition, though still somewhat unofficial, as the national anthem of England.
It must be said, however, that there is some musical opposition for a new English national anthem. Notably, this comes from the 1st (1901) and 4th (1907) Pomp and Circumstance Marches of Edward Elgar – respectively “Land of Hope and Glory” and “Song of Liberty” (words by the poet A.P. Herbert), with truly Edwardian England music and words that would make any (English) national proud.
Another contender, no doubt, would be Cecil Spring Rice’s poem “The Two Fatherlands” (“I Vow to Thee, My Country”), set to music by Gustav Holst (1921) and which appears in his composition “The Planets – Jupiter, the bringer of jollity” (that would be handy at a soccer match featuring the English team, though obviously not quite so necessary at an event like the Commonwealth Games).
(For a republican, it is rather ironic that Herbert and Elgar’s “Song of Liberty”, whose first line is “All men must be free”, was used for the recessional at the wedding of Charles Windsor and Diana Spencer)
Actually, as a schoolboy in Wales in the 1950’s, I was subject to learning each of the above viable English anthems, as well as, of course, committing to heart the Welsh National Anthem, “Land of My Fathers” – in Welsh: “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau”. Now there is an anthem of which to be proud (as the Welsh rugby union crowds at the Millenium Stadium, Cardiff, give testimony).
I suppose that Jerusalem will only gain overall recognition as the English national anthem when the masses who gather at Wembley and Twickenham resonate to its strains. Perhaps that is some way off and, it must be said, there are many who still favour using the British national anthem, “God Save the Queen (or King, as the case may be)”. I will leave the reader to speculate as to why this might be the case but, of one thing I am quite certain, the reason does not lie in the fact that those who sing it with gusto wish to downplay the importance of England in the overall British scheme of things. Quite the opposite may well be the case.
It has always struck me as rather illogical to sing the United Kingdom’s “God Save the Queen” at specifically English sporting events. Maybe it is time to let Blake and Parry, even Elgar, on to the field of play and give them a sporting chance of national recognition – at least in England.
Speaking of illogicalities, I thought that it was rather odd, to say the least, that, at the opening of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, the national anthem played was “God Save the Queen”. Now, it is true that the Queen, as the titular head of the Commonwealth (no longer the “Empire”, though there are those persons and institutions who would not acknowledge this fact), was present and took part in the opening ceremony by reading her greeting to the event,. However, these Commonwealth Games were not a United Kingdom event. They were the Scottish Games; Scotland was the host nation.
Therefore, should it not have been the case that the Scottish national anthem, “Flower of Scotland”, be played at the opening ceremony? Indeed, ought it not to be the case that, wherever the Commonwealth Games are held, the host nation’s national anthem is played at the opening occasion? That would remove any lingering thoughts about empire and deference to any one nation or head of state.
To return for a moment to Blake’s poem “And did those feet in ancient time”. It is a short poem from the preface to his epic “Milton, a Poem”, one of a collection of writings known as the “Prophetic Books”. It is worthwhile, and appropriate, to quote the poem in full:
And did those feet in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountains green? And was the holy Lamb of God, on England’s 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 England’s green and pleasant land.
The poem was inspired by the apocryphal story that a young Jesus of Nazareth, accompanied by Joseph of Arimathea, a tin merchant, travelled to what is now England and visited Glastonbury during what is regarded as his “unknown years”. The legend is linked to an idea in the Book of Revelation (3:12 and 21:2) describing a Second Coming of Jesus, wherein he establishes a “New Jerusalem”.
The Christian church in general and the English Church in particular, have long used Jerusalem as a metaphor for Heaven, a place of universal love and peace.
In the most common interpretation of the poem, Blake implies that a visit by Jesus would briefly create heaven in England, in contrast to the “dark Satanic Mills” of the Industrial Revolution. Blake’s poem asks four questions (see the first half of the poem) rather than asserting the historical truth of Christ’s visit. Therefore, the poem is not implying that Jesus actually visited England during his lifetime (or since), rather, it is a critique of the conditions of industrial England that a divine visit would have encountered and wished to overturn.
(Incidentally, the final stanza, “Bring me my chariots of fire!” was used as the title of the award-winning British film “Chariots of Fire”. The movie’s narrative was about the British team who went to the 1924 Paris Olympic Games. It had a sub-theme which juxtaposed the religious principle of opposing the playing of sport on the Sabbath with national duty).
Against the political and economic background of today’s England, the question needs to be asked that, if Jerusalem were to become England’s national anthem, then to what extent would contemporary England be a reflection, or otherwise, of what William Blake had in mind? If those clouds above England were to open would there be showers of gold or chariots of fire?
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