The Romantics Return: William Blake on the BBC

So absolutely glorious to hear the two versions of “Jerusalem” at the Proms last evening – not only Hubert Parry’s traditional version, but Errolyn Warren’s delicious re-visioning “Jerusalem – our clouded hills” in which she

has added a blues feeling and African rhythm.

Subtitled ‘our clouded hills’, her piece is dedicated to the Windrush generation and encourages a communion of Commonwealth nations…

(the BBC Last Night of the Proms 2020 is available on i-player for the next month).

It made me turn to the Blake Archive to look up Blake’s designs for Jerusalem created between 1804-1820, including this dramatic title page:

Jerusalem – The Emanation of the Giant Albion (Yale Centre for British Art).

With more detail on the website, the Tate summarises the complex poem:

In Jerusalem, Albion (England) is infected with a ‘soul disease’ and her ‘mountains run with blood’ as a consequence of the Napoleonic wars. Religion exists only to help monarchy and clergy exploit the lower classes. Greed and war have obscured the true message of religion. However, if Albion can be reunited with Jerusalem, the story goes, then all humanity will once again be bound together with love.


And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

Intriguingly, “Jerusalem” – the song we all know, with its music written by Hubert Parry and its orchestration by Edward Elgar – is actually from Blake’s poem “Milton” in which he recalls the possibility that Jesus had once travelled to England (Glastonbury) with Joseph of Arimathea.

And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

If so, and the dark satanic mills of Blake’s contemporary world – with its Enlightenment science and industrial rationalism – were obscuring the spiritual knowledge and perceptive vision that Heaven was once here, then

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 Englands green & pleasant Land.


It’s that ‘Mental Fight’ that is so important here – the power of art, poetry, the creative imagination – and takes us to Simon Schama’s new series The Romantics and Us in which (in part one, “Passions of the People”) William Blake also makes a significant appearance as “one of the founding fathers of Romanticism”.

Living in a “city growing fat with the profits of Empire” where everyday he saw the extremes of wealth and destitution, Blake was, in Schama’s (really quite emotional tone) “always reaching for that bit of Heaven as he sees everybody as potentially wonderful. That’s his adorable thing… that’s how he sees the world even in the middle of… filthy, cruel, ferocious meat-grinder London.”

I’d highly recommend watching it as Testament brings home the relevance of Blake today and Simon Schama marks the passions of William Blake, Eugene Gericault, Mary Wollstonecraft and others and the impact they’ve had on our subsequent histories.


Have we, in 2020, entered a new Romantic Age?

Orc – a vigorous youth, surrounded by the fires of revolutionary passion – symbolises the spirit of rebellion and the love of freedom [Tate].


About TheCommonViewer

Independent Researcher: gently exploring the art and artists of early 20th century Britain (with forays elsewhere, in particular Russian Art History); the Art, Books & History Group meets monthly in Southend-on-Sea Twitter: @TheCommonViewer

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