2 years, 12 months ago
So, this entire thing is a response to Tom Ewing's fabulous post on his blog Popular
on “Candle in the Wind ‘97,”
which really is great, and probably worth having a look at. What follows is a rather lengthy reply that focuses on one specific aspect of his essay and runs with it for rather a lot of words. Enough words, in fact, that I thought it worth porting over here.
Specifically, I want to talk about the invocation of Blake’s "Jerusalem," and use it to make a point that is only incidentally related to Elton John and Princess Diana, and really an excuse to highlight something that I’ve been meaning to find an excuse to talk about for years, which is that picking anything by William Blake as your de facto national anthem is the most amazingly and wonderfully fucked up thing ever.
For those playing along at home, in addition to writing the words to the hymn popularly known as “Jerusalem,” or, more accurately, to writing the poem that Hubert Parry set to music in 1916 and to writing that poem that misspelled “tiger” that you had to read in Intro to Poetry, William Blake was an outsider artist, printmaker, revolutionary, and poet who regularly had visions of angels that inspired his lengthy prophetic works in which he detailed his own personal mythology of gods and wondrous beasts battling for control of the very soul of the world.
In his reading of “Candle in the Wind ‘97,” Ewing makes the interesting note that the passing reference to “England’s greenest hills” in the lyrics in turn invokes “Jerusalem,” specifically its opening couplet “And did those feet in ancient time / Walk upon England’s mountains green.” Ewing reads this as a moment in which the vaguely messianic imagery surrounding the late Princess Diana almost coheres, gesturing towards “what England might have if we finally got rid of the Royal Family” due to the hymn-version of the poem’s status as an alternative national anthem to “God Save the Queen,” noting the spikiness of invoking this in the context of Diana’s fraught relationship with the Royal Family proper. Ewing labels this reading as “tenuous,” which is perhaps, fair, except the tenuousness fits perfectly into what “Jerusalem” actually is.
"Jerusalem" is in practice part of the preface to Blake’s second-longest completed prophecy Milton A Poem
. Indeed, it is arguable whether this is even true - as with many of Blake’s works, Milton a Poem
is a complex textual phenomenon. Four of the engraved and illuminated manuscripts that Blake himself prepared survive. Three of these, known as copies A, B, and C, were printed in 1811, while a fourth copy, D, was printed in 1818. Despite being printed along with Copies A and B, Blake tinkered with Copy C over the years, and it more closely resembles Copy D. As a result, five plates appear only in Copies C and D, and a sixth plate is unique to Copy D. A seventh plate, however, appears only in Copies A and B. This plate consists of a prose preface that begins by proclaiming that “The Stolen and Perverted Writings of Homer & Ovid: of Plato & Cicero. which all Men ought to contemn: are set up by artifice against the Sublime of the Bible,” going on to explain that “Shakespeare & Milton were both curbd by the general malady & infection from the silly Greek and Latin slaves of the Sword,” before calling upon the “Young Men of the New Age” to “set your foreheads against the ignorant Hirelings! For we have Hirelings in the Camp, the Court, & the University,” telling artists to “suffer not the fashionable Fools to depress your powers by the prices they pretend to give for contemptible works,” concluding with the insistence that we should reject Greco-Roman influence in favor of “our own Imaginations,” which will produce works in harmony with God.
Only then does the preface transition the text set to music by Parry:
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 & pleasant Land
So this hymn consists of part of the preface to a much larger work - a preface that Blake omitted from later editions, in fact. It would be going too far to say Blake renounced the poem or preface - Blake’s approach to revision was always much more complicated than that - but I do want to stress the enormous complexity in even pinning down what those sixteen lines are.
Nevertheless, let’s try to figure out what they are, first entirely on their own terms and then, inasmuch as such a thing is even possible, within the larger context of Blake’s artistic and intellectual system.
The first seven lines focus on the idea of Christ having visited England. This visitation is framed in pastoral imagery, which is a good fit both for large swaths of England and for Christ (although we should perhaps remember that the pastoral/Christ imagery is at least in a substantial part a British invention in the first place). It’s not just the “mountains green” but the Lamb of God, the pleasant pastures, the and the Countenance Divine shining upon clouded hills. But then, at the end of the second verse, comes the famous transition, asking if Jerusalem was built “among these dark Satanic Mills.”
This line is generally taken as being about the growing industrial revolution, and certainly that is a large part of what is going on. But what is perhaps more significant is the turn the poem takes in the third stanza, a repeated call to action and, more pointedly, to arms. The items Blake calls for here are all weapons: a bow and arrow, a spear, and a chariot. The fourth stanza similarly speaks of a sword, although it also makes clear that Blake considers this battle to be a mental one, a line that must be read in the context of the preface’s earlier discussion of Hirelings “who would, if they could, for ever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War.”
Nevertheless, the final two lines, which mirror the last two lines of the second stanza, make it clear what’s going on. Just as Christ visited an ancient and pastoral England to construct Jerusalem, so now must we, through mental Fight, tear down the England of dark Satanic Mills and rebuild Jerusalem in their ashes.
The poem, in other words, is explicitly revolutionary, making its adoption as a national quasi-anthem perverse on the face of it. This is a poem about completely upending the entire social order. That it wants to replace it with Christlike pastoral tranquility may seem to defang it a bit, but this need be taken in the context of Blake’s larger work, in which the pastoral Christ becomes an enormously complex figure who exists in part to put a cheery and less seditious face on Blake’s radicalism. Indeed, Blake was hugely invested in all manner of radical and heretical theology and spent most of his time lobbing finely worked bombs at the institutions of religion from within its own iconography.
While Blake was writing Milton
he was also hard at work on Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion
, his longest and most elaborate prophecy. It is necessary here to digress briefly and talk about the idea of the emanation within Blake. Blake’s mythology consists of a number of mythic and godlike (or at least demiurgical) figures, and his plots tend to concern their falls and restorations as they are split off from or reunited with aspects of themselves. One of the most fundamental aspects of any of Blake’s entities is the Emanation, which is the female counterpart to the aspect. The most famous of these pairs is Urthona/Los and Enitharmon. The former is Blake’s figure of creativity and creation, most often presented as Los, who, armed with a hammer, endlessly tries to create things to oppose the horrible fixity of Urizen, another of Blake’s entities. Enitharmon, on the other hand, is a figure of hope and compassion. When Enitharmon is split from Los he becomes an empty, hollow figure who is barely better than Urizen himself. Similarly, Urizen’s fall comes when he rejects his own Emanation, Ahania, the spirit of inspiration, pleasure, and curiosity, and instead becomes a force of cold and all-encompassing rationality.
Indeed, the role of Urizen as the primary villain of Blake’s mythology is significant. Urizen represents law, religion, and the rational order that controls the world, and the continual mission and struggle underlying every one of Blake’s prophecies is finding some way out from under Urizen’s awful yoke. Whether it be his violent overthrow or his redemption, it is always the social order - the rules of the world - that Blake is seeking to shatter. The “dark Satanic Mills” invoked within “Jerusalem” are clearly the Urizenic order of things, and the Mental Fight that Blake commits himself to is the struggle of creative vision to shatter the tyranny of law and reason itself.
So Jerusalem is, as the title suggests, the emanation of Albion. Albion’s links to England are straightforward enough, but Blake expands his role to being the patriarch of mankind as a whole. Jerusalem, who represents Liberty, is Albion’s emanation and the bride of Christ, but as is inevitable in Blake’s mythology, Albion ultimately shuns Jerusalem and falls after wedding Vala, a figure of, among other things, war and conflict. Both Milton
talk of his fall and, crucially, resurrection and redemption.
So any discussion of Jerusalem being built in England at the start of Milton
must be taken in the larger context of what Jerusalem is and what its relationship with England/Albion is in Blakes other work at the time. This is, after all, how Blake’s mythology works: he retells stories from different perspectives and with different focuses. So “Jerusalem” the hymn is more fundamentally revolutionary than it appears on first glance. It is a poem about rejecting the entire structure of the world - about a final judgment that will upend the entire system of nations and religions. The Jerusalem being built has dragon wings, for fuck’s sake.
Let’s track back to Princess Diana, shall we? Ewing makes the suggestion that Diana’s death came at the last conceivable moment where popularity seemed a possible and revolutionary alternative to the entrenched system of authority, and that the lost possibility of Diana as the saintly and holy alternative is what is elegized by “Candle in the Wind ‘97,” particularly in its shadowed invocation of Blake.
It fails, of course, but as we’ve already seen there’s something more complex and unsettling going on here. One can almost imagine the popular revolution that never was in which the people, embracing their pop star Diana, demand the overthrow of the House of Windsor and its replacement with the House of Spencer. Indeed, in another historical era the possibility of Diana getting swept into some revolutionary scheme by a pretender to the throne is perfectly easy to envision. But this feels like a hollow echo of some larger threat to the public order.
"Candle in the Wind ‘97" represents in practice the material icon of a fetishistic act of mourning. Ewing talks about the limits on the number of copies one could buy, because they were being picked up en masse, the act of buying the single becoming equated with the act of mourning. There is something grotesque and unsettling here. As Ewing notes, the single is simply not that good. But its content is irrelevant. Its existence is oddly necessary - the single is needed because the act of public mourning requires a pop incarnation.
But this strange gap between the fetishized popular object and the actual thing is far from an unfamiliar feature within this iconography. If anything it feels like the reiteration of Blake’s fate, and particularly that of “Jerusalem.” Blake in his time was an almost entirely unknown outsider artist. He was barely able to scrape together a life of poverty, and that mostly because of the kindness of benefactors who recognized his genius/enjoyed the fashion accessory of having a madman artist on retainer. His reputation is almost entirely posthumous, based on the affection with which the pre-Raphaelites and other early avant garde movements had for him.
But this is not an unfamiliar role in British culture, which has a long and complex tradition of providing a social space for the eccentric madman. Even the pop charts do this - an integral part of the narrative of Popular is the moments where some strange novelty hit or icon from outside of the mainstream gains a momentary acceptance and legitimacy from its chart appearance. Blake’s role as the sanctioned, acceptable, and widely embraced madman is a well trod one.
And yet the strange and brilliant fire of Blake’s vision always burns and crackles within this role. The underlying perversity of using “Jerusalem” as any sort of hymn of organized religion or quasi-national anthem never goes away. This is the incidental consequence of making a prescribed space for the mad. England’s unofficial national anthem is a song about the complete and utter annihilation of the entire social order.
And Diana served, in her own way, as the perfect figure for the haunted culture this implies. Blake’s mythology is full of female figures wailing in the darkness, haunting the world as discarded consequences of the hubristic male figures who have cast off their emanations. And Diana fits the symbolic part perfectly. If the Royal Family serves as the embodiments of Albion - and in the strict mythology of the monarchy they do - then Diana is Jerusalem herself, cast out, rejected, and wandering the world, debased and degraded. Her romance with Dodi Fayed seems an almost too perfect recreation of this - Jerusalem, in Blake’s mythology, is imprisoned within Babylon after Albion’s rejection. The unsettlingly anglo-centric aspects of Blake’s mythology echo perfectly the conspiracy theories surrounding Diana’s death that suggest that she was murdered over this very relationship.
And more to the point, there is something about Diana herself that leads to this. Ewing scrapes at its edges when he notes the image of Diana as a pop fan, dancing in front of the mirror. Something similar appears in Alan Moore’s spoken-word The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theater of Marvels
, in which he talks of the royal wedding’s late move to St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the way in which Diana and the people’s love for her reiterates the lunar energies that lie, shackled and bound, within that solar altar. Something about her - about the way she looks, if you will - invites this reading. As though she has always carried the inexpressible sorrow of a fallen world.
Within the gaudy excess of her public mourning lurks something monstrous, in other words. Not the altogether too easily rejected spectacle of “the pop princess,” but rather the wailing, mourning figure of Jerusalem, of Liberty bound and cast out. The radical and terrifying visage of William Blake himself, the revolutionary and visionary prophet caged within the anodyne and pastoral misinterpretation of his own call to arms. But just as the fiery terror of Blake’s vision threatens to burst out of its cage like a Tyger slamming against the walls of its cell, out from under the grotesque excesses of public mourning and the toxically saccharine strains of Elton John lurks the fearsome goddess upon whose shackling is the cornerstone of every dark Satanic Mill.
how can delight,
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Renew in these chains of darkness
Where bones of beasts are strown
On the bleak and snowy mountains
Where bones from the birth are buried
Before they see the light.