Sunday 13 April 2008

Evangelicals and Historicism

I think it was the Church of England vicar Michael Saward who has said "No - no - no - no" about the hymn Jerusalem - William Blake's poem And Did Those Feet In Ancient Time from the preface to Milton: a Poem (1804). The music came from C. Hubert H. Parry in 1916 and its history as a hymn is the nationalism of the First World War and arguably a corruption of what the poem expresses. Some say it is not a hymn because it includes no worship, which seems to narrow down what worship is about (I regard worship as being worth-ship).

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountain 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 those 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.

Since the Enlightenment some religious folks seem to have lost the connection between religious myth and meaning, and have become ideological purveyors of scientism and historicism. Their historical religion has to be "true" in a narrow and restricted sense. Recently we had the Archbishop of Canterbury, no less, saying that if the bones did not disappear into a transformation of resurrection, then he would stop being Archbishop of Canterbury, stop celebrating the sacraments and would advise there being no more Archbishop of Canterburys. He needs history, despite his narrative methodology.

Given that scriptures tell fantastic tales that are biography-like and history-like, this does seem a rather restrictive view. I know that the chap who runs the Arian Catholic Church over the river from here (he is in Hessle - we have more than our fair share of Independents around here) demands that the story about Joseph of Arimathea bringing Jesus the teenager to England is true. Jesus (or Yeshua, Yehoshua etc.) was hardly a cultural universalist and was not prone to international travel. He is lost in local history, and not provable to be someone else at the time.

Did Blake believe it? Whether he did or not, the poem via questions in its first verse sets out to romanticise the land and set up a contrast with emerging modernity. He is asking, in the first verse, whether we live on holy ground, and whether that holy ground is in between the emerging dirty industrial landscape. We might see it as an ecological poem. It may have been an early anti-capitalist poem, that the life of the land is holy whereas the first mills are satanic. If it is then there is a clash with his radical support for the French Revolution and overturning the old regime along with middle class radicals of the time (like the early ideological Unitarians - materialists, scientists, themselves biblical literalists, believers in miracles, and capitalistic - following on from the mercantilist interests of the English Presbyterians). Unlike these folks, but like later radicals, he was an early romanticist and this is evident in the poem: whatever, the poem's focus on the qualities of the land is as Pagan in reference as it is Jewish and Christian in the sourcing of its language.

The second verse is a motivation to effort, and turns the romanticism around to us, saying it is up to us to rebuilt what was holy in the past. Would it be a view of Merrie England, an anti capitalist view? Anglo-Catholics in England deep in the heart of urban squalor often represented a colourful Merrie England - so the hymn would suit them. Whatever, the poem says get on and do it, and does so in this sort of religious language from the mental fight to the actions of the hands.

It is worship, and is a hymn (despite its nationalist start), because it is about our connectedness with the land and with each other. In that God makes things holy by "walking" on the land then now we will have to be God's feet. In this sense we see the modernism in romanticism.

I suspect this is why the evangelicals don't like it: because they have an Enlightenment perspective of a pre-Enlightenment world. I would like to think that my postmodernism, while it recognises the modern, at least to some degree re-enlivens that story and myth world that our forbears enjoyed as they constructed their worlds of meaning. That's a world that can say that Glastonbury is a holy place.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the good reflections, Mr. Worsfold. If I may, I have spent a good deal of time studying Romantic literature and Blake in particular, and there are couple of points that may prove helpful by way of addition. (As an aside, you have combined the four stanzas into two. The second stanza begins with "And did the Countenance Divine" and the fourth begins with "I will not cease from Mental Fight." Can I assume that the combination of stanzas comes from the "hymn" version?)

You raise a good point regarding historicism by calling attention to the legend that Blake adapts in this poem. Blake is making reference to a spiritual Israel, in which the significance of biblical events is as relevant to England as to Palestine. It is a poem of mental war in the service of apocalyptic desire. And, while it is fair to see an allusion in the poem to industrial England, Blake primarily uses the mill as a symbol for mechanistic and utilitarian worldviews; "the same dull round, even of a universe" becomes "a mill with complicated wheels."

I think it is a wonderful irony that this poem has become a "nationalist" hymn. And, I think you raise a good point about Evangelicals mechanised view of history impeding them from fully appreciating Blake's and in turn the poem's point. Indeed, ours is the task to build the spiritual Israel through a mental war on all that would reduce the human spirit, demythologize our life. For Blake, the success of this mental war is built upon his Romantic conceptions of freedom and spirituality. And, here again we find a conflict for the Evangelical or persons for whom such things are better left divided by a really large fence.

Great post, sir.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Yes it is the hymn version. I am generally in favour of remythologisation, not demythologisation, though sometimes one needs the latter to get to the former.