Banner image by Cold War Steve, from The Cold War Steve Giant Jubilee Postcard, 2022.

The patriotic frenzy around Brexit and the death of Elizabeth Windsor offers an opportunity to reappraise Blake’s song Jerusalem and the nationalistic impulse so many find in it. Jason Whittaker’s new book on Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ is reviewed.

Jason Whittaker: Jerusalem: Blake, Parry, and the Fight for EnglishnessJason Whittaker: Jerusalem: Blake, Parry, and the Fight for Englishness
Oxford University Press, 2022
‘Jerusalem’ is a much more contested vision of England’s green and pleasant land than is often assumed. This book traces the history of the poem and the music from Blake’s original verses, written in Felpham, via the turmoil of the First and Second World Wars, its recording history in the late twentieth century, and its use in political controversies such as the 2016 Brexit vote

No Place Called Home: An Introduction

Andy Wilson, Oct 2022

for Niall McDevitt, 1967-2022

Now I’m the damned, I despise the fatherland. The best thing is a good, drunken snooze on the strand.
Arthur Rimbaud, Une saison en enfer

I suppose every boy wants to help his country in some way or another.
Robert Baden-Powell, Scouting for Boys

Nationalism is the price of admission into a polity into which you are bound anyway, from which you can’t escape this side of your own apocalypse. It legitimates debate within the polity by giving it a form which assumes (and constitutes) a community among the members of a nation. To speak beyond its limits is to remove yourself from that community. Due to a failure of the imagination, this is a vertiginous, unwieldy and unacceptable prospect for many.

Brexit supporters discuss the contradictions of Britain’s imperial legacy while enjoying Canadian lager

The fact that national autonomy is today existentially challenged by trans-national forces does not usher nationalism quietly into the wings, but makes it more assertive, as Brexit showed. Sensing the abyss opening up for conventional thought as global forces put national identity under unbearable strain, its enthusiasts — who can imagine nothing beyond the nation-state — must rally to keep it afloat. Yet, try as they might, the King’s men cannot put England together again: all efforts to do so will now only weaken it further, eventually.

It is said there is a fundamental difference between patriotic pride (Jane Austin and Shakespeare, with optional John Ball and Wat Tyler) and nationalism as a political program (ethnic racism and militaristic self-aggrandisement), yet there is nothing in history you couldn’t be just as fond of without imagining the nation as its author: patriotism is pointless. So, what remains of patriotic feeling? Failing to come to terms with the end of Empire, squeezed by multinational capital, the people proclaim their love of the nation louder than ever, scared that the national rug is being pulled from beneath them. But is there a future, UK, in England’s dreaming?

Blakean themes and images are to be found at the heart of all this, shared all around the political compass: Blake is lionised by both the left and the right. Some see in this cause for celebration — a sign of how Blake might bring all of Britain together, despite our differences. Others see in it a token of how shallow has been our interpretation of Blake, and how poorly he is understood. At the centre of the patriotic appropriation of Blake is the hymn ‘Jerusalem’, the words of which are taken from the Preface to Milton a Poem, written by Blake in the years after 1804, and set to music by Sir Hubert Parry a century later.1

the making of meaning and the ‘fight for englishness’

Jason Whittaker has written a detailed and timely book, Jerusalem: Blake, Parry, and the Fight for Englishness,2 which records how the hymn resonated with various social, artistic and political forces since its first performance in 1916. According to the book, ‘Jerusalem’ “has become emblematic not only of Blake’s visions of England, but of England itself”:3 it is “the hymn most often appealed to as a definition of Englishness and of England,”4 such that “the history of the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ is in many ways a history of England in the twentieth century”.5 The story of ‘Jerusalem’ is told in terms of our history. What makes ‘Jerusalem’ seem truly national to the author is that everyone sees themselves in its mirror. But does what we find in that mirror reflect Blake’s views or our own? This is at the heart of the issues raised by the book.

One thing to emerge clearly is that our sense of the meaning of ‘Jerusalem’ is something we have projected onto what Blake wrote. The meaning of ‘Jerusalem’ as it has been interpreted over the years, is the product of the collective imagination of those who have sung it, whatever Blake himself may have thought. Jerusalem: Blake, Parry, and the Fight for Englishness is divided into chapters which address successive phases of this appropriation: from the time of Blake’s writing Milton through to Hubert Parry’s setting of the stanzas to music in 1915. Further chapters address successive historical periods (1916-1922, 1923-1945, 1945-1976, 1977-1996, and 1997-2016) as distinct cultural periods (‘The Great War’, ‘Peace and War’, ‘Empire’s End’, ‘Thatcher’s Britain and the End of the Cold War’, and ‘From Blair to Brexit’) shaping the reception of the hymn, and of Blake himself. There are framing chapters interpreting key aspects of the text and commenting on the nature of English nationalism, concluding with an Epilogue, ‘Albion’, in which the author lays out his own interpretation of Blake and his politics.

William Blake, ‘Jerusalem’: Preface to Milton: a Poem. Hand-coloured relief etching. Copy A of four copies. Printed c.1811. British Library. Image from The William Blake Archive.

Regarding the text itself, Whittaker shows how much critical spadework had to be done before later generations could feel they knew what Blake was talking about. The earliest commentators were not so sure, and struggled to make sense of the text. We are lucky there was anything at all for people to talk about: only four copies of Milton are known to have been created by Blake, and of these, only the earliest two contain the Preface, Blake having removed it from later versions.6 Blake ommitted the Preface when he made the third copy of Milton, at the end of 1811 — the same year he created the first and second copies. Thus, the Preface came and went within a single year, never to be revived.7 We don’t know why Blake chose to remove the Preface, and, perhaps surprisingly, Whittaker doesn’t ask the question either: specifically, he doesn’t ask whether it’s possible Blake thought something awry with it. The matter is left hanging when it deserves consideration.

In these circumstances, it is lucky that by the time Alexander Gilchrist published the first biography of Blake,8 (which informed criticism for a generation to come, since no one beyond a small circle had paid Blake much attention before) he had seen a copy of the Preface in the British Museum, and was able to say something about it.9 The other copies were in private hands. Even then, Gilchrist said little, finding it difficult to understand: “The Milton… equals its predecessor in obscurity; few are the readers who will ever penetrate beyond the first page or two.”10 Only a few pages of the Life were given over to its analysis. When the second edition was published in 1880 with a selection of poems edited by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the future lyrics to ‘Jerusalem’ were omitted.11 Thus, “for more than three decades following Blake’s death, the stanzas from Milton virtually disappeared.”12 The first commentators on Blake had little to go on in interpreting the text. Swinburne — more alive than most to the specific gravity of Blake’s thought — says of the Preface that “though taken in the letter it may read like foolishness, is in the spirit of it certainty and truth for time,”13 but without informing us what he thought that ‘truth for time’ might be. 

Mental Fight #1: Unravelling a Text

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?
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 Englands green & pleasant Land.14

William Blake, Joseph of Arimathea Among the Rocks of Albion, 1779.

Regarding the interpretation of the text, a number of issues are aired. The stanzas ask, “and did those feet in ancient time / walk upon England’s mountains green.” A survey of my friends backs up Whittaker’s belief that these lines are generally taken to refer to Christ himself and the legend that he visited England as a child. The problem Whittaker raises is that the legend was apparently unknown in Blake’s time. The story of Christ’s visit to the Britons began officially with Henry Jenner, who picked it up from among London’s metalworkers.15 Jenner passed it on to A.R. Hope Moncrieff and the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, who both told the story in separate works they published in the mid-1890’s. This is long after Blake’s death in 1827, of course.

Whittaker believes that Blake was speaking instead of Joseph of Arimathea, of whom there had been stories of his visiting England as a metal trader and of founding the first English church, St Mary’s at Glastonbury, dating as far back as William of Malmsbury, in De antiquitate Glastionensis ecclesiae (c.1129-35) — though Blake’s own source for the story is more likely to have been Milton’s History of Britain (1670). Blake referred to the myth a number of times, in works such as Joseph of Arimathea Preaching to the Britons (c.1794-5) and Joseph of Arimathea among the Rocks of Albion (c.1803-10).

If we rely on written records alone, it seems Blake cannot have been speaking of Christ. This seems reasonable at first, until we remember that the written record is only part of the story — and not necessarily the greater part. If Blake is talking here of Joseph and not Christ, one wonders what he meant by the lines that immediately follow: “And was the Holy Lamb of God / On England’s pleasant pastures seen.” If he had in mind the legend of Joseph’s visit, why the need for the rhetorical opening (“and did those feet..?”) Perhaps he was expressing gentle scepticism about the authority of antiquarian legends as such, though he is normally rather credulous. Even so, why follow up with a parallel question about “the Holy Lamb of God”, who surely isn’t Joseph? Is he talking about two persons, or one? It does rather sound as though he intended the feet in the first question to be those of Christ, the Holy Lamb of God, whatever the state of the textual record of the legend of Christ’s visit.

We should remember that Blake didn’t only read the Bible, he wrote his own version. It would not be unlike him to imagine Christ’s actual presence in England — I won’t say his physical presence, because that is not how Blake thought. The idea of Christ’s ubiquity, of his kenosis, or ‘pouring out’ of himself into the profane world, is perhaps the cornerstone of Blake’s theology, as argued by the radical theologian, Thomas Altizer.16 That a visit by Christ to England was not already part of literary history was not a barrier to a man of Blake’s prophetic talent, and while it is proper to attend to the written record, we shouldn’t fetishise it. Blake was part of an artisanal, plebeian culture that was not always properly recorded. After all, the story of Christ’s visit was gleaned from London metalworkers, who presumably had shared the story among friends and peers long before an intellectual with literary connections listened in for long enough to get it on the record. The authors of the written record of Christ’s visit were, by definition, the last guests to arrive at the party.

When T.S. Eliot said Blake lacked “a framework of accepted and traditional ideas that would have prevented him from indulging in a philosophy of his own”, and that he suffered from “a certain meanness of culture,” he fell into the trap of confusing the dominant culture (to which he himself was so deeply and volubly wedded) with culture as such.17 The culture of the subordinate classes is at a disadvantage in the written record, in proportion to the extent that the plebs were illiterate or were otherwise listened to. Blake arguably lived at a time of transition, as the spread of literacy and the popular press eventually meant that plebian ideas could at last emerge onto the written record. But the ruling ideas still rule, and such plebian ideas as do emerge are invariably recuperated and defanged, as I would argue has happened with Blake, who has been turned into a patriot in the course of being absorbed. The historian, Carlo Ginzburg, has written on the need, when researching counter-hegemonic and marginal thinkers such as Blake, not to limit oneself to the written record:

This is due to the fact that dominant culture and subordinate culture are matched in an unequal struggle, where the dice are loaded. Given the fact that the documentation reflects the relationship of power between the classes of a given society, the possibility that the culture of the subordinate classes should leave a trace, even a distorted one, in a period in which illiteracy was so common, was indeed slim. At this point, to accept the usual standards of proof entails exaggerating the importance of the dominant culture.
Carlo Ginsburg, The Cheese and the Worms18

We need to open up to the possibility that Blake drew his ideas not only from his many books, but from the (largely) submerged plebian tradition (of which he is one of the few examples to have bubbled up so thrillingly into the dominant culture) he grew up and lived within. Without that context we can’t even fully understand what he made of the texts that certainly did influence him, because it is through the lens of that plebian tradition that he read those books. We have to enter the enthusiastic, antinomian world of Blake’s thought, and not simply rely on texts. Of course, from an academic point of view, leaving the beaten paths of textuality risks the ridicule of your peers: but without it, it is impossible to understand Blake at all.

W.B. Yeats and Algernon Swinburne: psychopomps of early Blake criticism

Whatever Blake thought about Christ’s physical presence, he was certain that Christ was nevertheless actually present here in England. For example, as Niall McDevitt has shown, Blake identified nearby Tyburn with ‘Calvary’s foot’, and his own lodgings thereabouts as ‘Sinai’s cave’ (“Between South Molton Street & Stratford Place: Calvarys foot”19.. “God… who in mysterious Sinais awful cave / To man the wond’rous art of writing gave,”20), and also with the ‘Druidical temples’ of old, thus bringing together Christ, himself (likely writing these lines while living at 17 South Moulton St) with the victims of both ancient British druidical sacrifice and modern British judiciary alike, right here on the streets of London.21 In such a meeting between Christ, Blake and the Tyburn hanged, Christ is eternally present with the others at the moment of writing, while still also “in ancient times”. And since Blake believed that “Man is all Imagination God is Man & exists in us & we in him,” he might plausibly wonder to himself in verse whether Christ had similarly been present to others “in ancient times”.22

Another sense in which Christ might be felt to Blake to be eternally present is that implied by the Digger, Gerrard Winstanley, in speaking of the Two Last Witnesses mentioned in the Book of Revelation,23 when he said that he “thought the Two Last Witnesses were Christ in the body and Christ in many bodies, Christ in his first coming and Christ rising in the sons and daughters in his second coming, now.”24 For Winstanley, then, Christ was present, among other places, on St George’s Hill, in Surrey, where he and his followers established their commune. The presence of Christ was real to Blake, and the fact is, in dealing with a visionary like him we can’t always say with certainty what he intended because his imagination generally outruns the grasp of ‘correct’ thought.25

arrows of desire

It sometimes feels as though the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ has two distinct emotional centres, one patiently facing into the future and the rewarding task of building a new world, and the other urgently arming itself for the fight that will be necessary in order to achieve that, champing at the bit: one delights in the thought of England’s “green and pleasant land”, (Parry’s music decelerates as the phrase is sung, to allow the listener to bask in the thought), while the other rants against England’s “Satanic mills”. It is the latter mood which dominates as Blake marshals his weapons, creating what I will call the ‘fighting stanzas’:

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

William Blake26,

It was left to W.B. Yeats and Edwin Ellis, in their two volume work on Blake — the first major such study since Gilchrist’s biography —  to tease out the sexual symbolism;

In ‘ancient time’ visionary freedom and the conduct of life was one. Christ, the Imagination, stood with Albion, the ancient Man. He shall return again aided by the bow, sexual symbolism, the arrow, desire, the spear, male potency, the chariot, joy.
W.B. Yeats and Edwin Ellis, The Works of William Blake, 1893.27

Whittaker dismisses such an interpretation, saying that it “owes more to Yeats’s fascination with occult paraphernalia… than to any deep understanding of Blake’s visions.” The supposed shortcomings of Yeats and Ellis’s reading, he puts down testily to their Irish nationalism having led them to overlook “any suggestion that Blake could have been at all interested in English (as opposed to Irish) nationalism.” `He adds that theirs’ is nevertheless “one of the most bizarrely perceptive readings of the poem ever undertaken.”28 I suggest instead that Yeats did have a good understanding of Blake in this matter, and the reason the comments are so perceptive is that they cut to the heart of how Blake, anticipating Freud, saw sexuality, ‘spirituality’ and politics tied together at the roots. Of course, as a Blake scholar, Whitaker understands the importance of sex and sexual imagery to him, so it’s a shame he chose to ignore this dimension of the poem after dismissing it so casually, as it is a clue to how ‘Jerusalem’ has been received over the years, with different readings moving as much between the poles of repressive nostalgia and passionate political commitment (albeit maybe dialling back a little on the specifically male sexual energy involved) as they do between Whittaker’s preferred axis of ‘reaction’ and ‘progress’, thus eliding an entire dimension of the poem’s reception — although, to be fair, a review from that particular point of view would be a huge task.

dark satanic mills

Fire at the Albion Flour Mills, 1791

Whittaker examines the question of the ‘dark Satanic Mills’ among which, Blake says, Jerusalem is to be built. Often this striking phrase is taken to refer to the cotton mills of Lancashire and the North in the Industrial Revolution, as a symbol of industrial dirt and blight, though Blake never saw those mills, and few people made such connections until after his time.29 It is sometimes said that Blake had in mind the Albion Mills, a factory built in Southwark by Samuel Wyatt in 1786, and close to Blake’s home at the time in Lambeth — but the Albion Mills burned down in 1791, and, as Whittaker notes, it seems unlikely that Blake still thought of it as the epitome of evil a full twenty years later, not with everything that had happened in between.30 Others see a reference to the English Church,31 or to academia, or empiricist thinking.32 Whittaker is right to say that the beginnings of an answer can be found just a few pages further into the text of Milton itself, where Blake conjures up this typically alarming and incredible image:

Within labouring. beholding Without: from Particulars to Generals
Subduing his Spectre, they Builded the Looms of Generation
They Builded Great Golgonooza Times on Times Ages on Ages
First Orc was Born then the Shadowy Female: then All Los’s Family
At last Enitharmon brought forth Satan Refusing Form, in vain
The Miller of Eternity made subservient to the Great Harvest
That he may go to his own Place Prince of the Starry WheelsBeneath the Plow of Rintrah & the harrow of the Almighty
In the hands of Palamabron. Where the Starry Mills of Satan
Are built beneath the Earth & Waters of the Mundane Shell
William Blake33

Here we have Satan as “The miller of eternity” and “Prince of the starry wheels”, along with an image of the “starry mills of Satan”, mentioned alongside the “plough of Rintrah”, and the “harrow of the Almighty”. The idea behind it is not immediately obvious, but the mention of the tools (the mill, the plough and the harrow) is obviously not intended literally, but through the sifter of Blake’s “eternal vision or imagination,”34 and his “allegory address’d to the intellectual powers,”35 and Whittaker is right to see Satan’s mill as something more abstract and encompassing than a factory or a lecture hall. Rather he believes it to stand for any activity by which Satan ‘grinds down men’s souls’, ‘milling’ them by breaking down the soul, reducing it to bare matter — a category which would certainly include the mills of the Industrial Revolution, along with the Church and academia, empiricism, management consultancy, diplomacy, and much else besides.36

war and peace

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. but when the New Age is at leisure to Pronounce; all will be set right: & those Grand Works of the more ancient & consciously & professedly Inspired Men, will hold their proper rank, & the Daughters of Memory shall become the Daughters of Inspiration. Shakspeare & Milton were both curbd by the general malady & infection from the silly Greek & Latin slaves of the Sword.

Rouze up O Young Men of the New Age! set your foreheads against the ignorant Hirelings! For we have Hirelings in the Camp, the Court, & the University: who would if they could, for ever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War. Painters! on you I call! Sculptors! Architects! Suffer not the fash[I]onable Fools to depress your powers by the prices they pretend to give for contemptible works or the expensive advertizing boasts that they make of such works; believe Christ & his Apostles that there is a Class of Men whose whole delight is in Destroying. We do not want either Greek or Roman Models if we are but just & true to our own Imaginations, those Worlds of Eternity in which we shall live for ever; in Jesus our Lord.37

Blake’s introductory comments to the stanzas of ‘Jerusalem’ are as striking as the poem that follows. He starts by denouncing “The Stolen and Perverted Writings of Homer & Ovid: of Plato & Cicero”, placing himself at odds with the Enlightenment mania for classical culture. He accuses classical culture of being the product of mechanistic, literal, rationalising, Urizenic thought; a child of “the Daughters of Memory”, rather than of vision and “the Daughters of Inspiration.” Principally, he charges the Greeks and Romans with being “slaves of the Sword.”38

Blake sees militarism and state violence as rooted in thought processes derived from the Classics and idealised by the Enlightenment. He calls on the younger generation to rise up against this and “set your foreheads against the ignorant Hirelings! For we have Hirelings in the Camp, the Court, & the University: who would if they could, for ever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War.”39 Blake later tied this criticism explicitly to real-world politics — not belligerence and antagonism in general but the conflicts of his time — arguing in 1820 that “it is the Classics! & not Goths nor Monks, that Desolate Europe with Wars.”40 Whittaker notes that all this is a departure for Blake, who had earlier treated Homer and Plato as exemplars.41 Now, however, their thought is identified with rapine, violence and militarism.

The author could have delved more deeply into this issue to discuss concretely how Blake saw the use of violence. There is no doubt that Blake was against what we would call militarism, of course, and certainly opposed to the violence visited by the rich on the poor, but I doubt that he was strictly a pacifist, as Whittaker claims through the book: he is, after all, one of the minority of English poets to have been tried for their life for violently assaulting a soldier, and he had gladly worn the phrygian cap / red liberty bonnet, identifying himself with the French Revolution.42 His poem, The Tyger, could easily be seen as embodying a rather more detached view of violence than is implied by calling him a ‘pacifist’. Speaking of the poem, Georges Bataille concluded, “Never have eyes as wide open as [Blake’s] stared at the sun of cruelty”, and “Blake’s mind was open to the truth of evil.”43 By interpreting Blake as having the views of a trustafarian peacenik, Whittaker abstracts from Blake’s actual politics to turn him into a symbol of any pacific impulse at all. This allows him later to present anything less than full-bore militarism as somehow rather Blakean, or implicitly Blakean, rather than grappling with the details of Blake’s attitude to political praxis (difficult though that topic may be), as we shall see.

Jerusalem’s building site

The red dragon of the Apocalypse, whose traditional seven heads were each named by Joachim of Fiore for a secular ruler that must fall: Herod, Nero, Constantius II, Chosroes, Mesemuthus, Saladin, and the Antichrist himself.

The most controversial aspect of the text, the one with the greatest impact on its reception, concerns the relation between Blake’s idea, first, that it is Jerusalem we must build, and second, that it should be built here, in “England’s green and pleasant land.” Jerusalem is the City of God, of course, but why England? The idea of Jerusalem as both a spiritual and, later, a political home, has a long history. Whittaker notes that the Mappa Mundi, in Hereford Cathedral (“the most important and most celebrated medieval map in any form”44) places Jerusalem at the centre of the known world, reflecting its preeminence as a spiritual symbol. It was long believed by Christians that God himself would usher in the Golden Age, in which the righteous would be ushered into the New Jerusalem to live as subjects of God’s realm. The map also served as a reminder to the Kings who contemplated it of their duty to the Crusades to help take back Jerusalem militarily from the Muslims.45 Its dual nature as both a token of spiritual commitment and a political goad, neatly anticipates the later coupling of Blake’s poem to similar foreign ambitions.

When it came to building Jerusalem, people began to think that it might, in fact, be their Christian duty to help usher in the new age rather than waiting for the end times to descend of their own accord, since they believed they already had God’s accord. This practical impulse in turn became mixed in with the Joachimite idea that mankind was about to enter the age of the Holy Spirit.46 The heirs of Joachim (more numerous than his actual followers, the idea having diffused over the centuries) spoke of three ages of history. The first age, the age of God the Father, was an age of wars, laws, exile and enslavement depicted in the Old Testament, with God as a lawgiver and jealous ruler. The age of God the Son, by contrast, was an age of the forgiveness of sins. Now we were to enter the third age, that of the God the Holy Ghost, in which men and women were possessed by the Holy Spirit directly. As such, they no longer had need for kings, popes, priests or masters to rule them, but by listening to their heart would know directly what needs be done. This is obviously a deeply democratic impulse,if you see it as a license for the rule of the masses, rather than a theocratic dictatorship of saints. There was much debate at the time as to how to interpret the idea, but radical enthusiasts (“person(s) possessed by God”47) certainly emerged publicly during the English Civil War in the form of the Ranters and similar marginal groupings, with the collapse of state censorship witnessing a great flourishing of antinomian, millenarian and chiliastic beliefs between 1640 and 1660.48

Even more moderate figures shared something of this view. The Fifth Monarchists believed that the issue at stake in the Civil War was “Should Christ or Antichrist rule?”49 Such millenarianism had roots far beyond the leaders and activists for the Parliamentary cause, and were alive among the mass of the people.50 In 1643, Henry Wilkinson reported to the House of Commons that the “general talk throughout the household among the domestics [was] that Christ their king is coming to take possession of the throne. They do not only whisper it and tell it in the ear, but they speak it publicly”.51 A recent study of Civil War literature found “millenarianism in 70 per cent of the works published by Puritan divines (Presbyterian or Independent) between 1640 and 1643. Lady Ranelagh in the 1640s was expecting the millennium soon, no less than her brother Robert Boyle and her friends John Dory, Henry Oldenbourg and John Milton. Some date in the 1650s had indeed solid scholarly support.”52 Blake was in many ways the child of this millenarian insurgency — or rather, of the plebian currents that underpinned it.

What we see in the texts produced during the ferment of the English Civil War — in the years from 1640-1660, when the religious control of the state broke down and people had the freedom for the first time we know of in English history to take their own ‘mechanick preacher’ and record for once their own views — is that, in plebian culture at least, there was no division between politics and religion in the way we take for granted today. As Christopher Hill put it, “the distinction we draw today between ‘religion’ and ‘politics’ does not apply in the seventeenth century. Religion was concerned with life on Earth: Christ’s kingdom was to be an earthly kingdom. So religion was politics: arguments about the franchise involved arguments about the Fall of Man.”53 To build Jerusalem, for Blake’s forebearers, was to take a stand politically. When they felt the breath of social revolution on their cheeks, it seemed to them that heaven and earth were reaching out to one another, that religion and politics were becoming of the same mind. The Welsh prophet, Arise Evans, said that before he came to London in 1629, he “looked upon scripture as a history of things that passed in other countries, pertaining to other persons; but now I looked upon it as a mystery to be opened at this time, belonging also to us.”54 Built into the foundations of Blake’s idea of Jerusalem is a bundle of these interwoven strands of the spiritual and the secular: the building of the City of God by way of the imaginative efforts of the believers, the saints; and divine intercession abetted by militant labour.

But whose job was it to build this new Jerusalem? Whittaker tells the unfolding story of the reception of ‘Jerusalem’ as a dialectic between seeing the building of Jerusalem as a mission entrusted by God specifically to the English, the new chosen people, versus seeing it as a small part of a greater project entrusted to all peoples. The former approach resonates neatly with the imperial ideology of England, which presents the Empire as working for the good of all, including those subjugated. With this in mind, the hymn is easily sung by even the most reactionary of imperialists, who believes that it calls on us us to promote the British Empire for the sake of civilization.55 The latter approach would find no political equivalent until the creation of the ‘First International’ — the International Workingmen’s Association — in 1864, with the claim of Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto that “The working men have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got,”  and their belief that nationalism would be eroded by the spread of capitalism: “National differences and antagonisms between peoples are vanishing gradually from day to day.”56

Fight for Right: The Birth of ‘Jerusalem’

Fellow Labourers! The Great Vintage & Harvest is now upon Earth
The whole extent of the Globe is explored: Every scatterd Atom
Of Human Intellect now is flocking to the sound of the Trumpet.
William Blake, Milton

In August 1915, one year into the First World War, and with British troops engaging in the Battle of the Somme, Lt. Col. Sir Francis Younghusband founded the organisation Fight for Right. Its members pledged to “fight for right till right be won — a call against disaffection in the progress and conduct of the war.”58 Their primary aim was to raise morale. They lobbied to get prominent intellectuals to support the war and create artworks that would boost support for the sacrifices of war, and encourage volunteers.

imperial pantheism, free love, and the council of faiths

Lt. Col. Sir Francis Younghusband, imperialist and advocate of free love and the Gaia hypothesis

By most standards, Younghusband was an extraordinary character. Dubbed “the last great imperial adventurer,”59 he went to Sandhurst and was commissioned into the 1st Kings Dragoon Guards at the age of 19. In 1886, still only in his early 20s, he led an expedition across 1200 miles of the Gobi desert, heading out from China ostensibly to survey the area but in fact to report on Russian troop positions. Nevertheless, the results of his survey were instrumental in helping found the Royal Geographical Society, of which he eventually became President in 1919. In 1903, he was appointed to lead the Tibet Frontier Commission — an invasion force by any other name, which set out to conquer that country. Along with Brigadier-General James Macdonald of the Royal Engineers, he led hundreds of men armed with cannons and machine guns in defeating a Tibetan army consisting of Buddhist monks armed with swords, flintlocks, and the occasional hoe or rice-flail. Patrick French tells the story of the Tibet-British peace negotiations in his biography of Younghusband:

General Lhading, having consulted the prophecies of the legendary King Yeshe O, went forward from his own lines to engage in peace talks with the British. Younghusband and Macdonald told him that his soldiers should extinguish the fuses of the matchlock guns as a guarantee of good faith. Once this had been done the weapons were effectively inoperable since it takes several minutes to light a new fuse from the flint: “When the Tibetan soldiers had extinguished their fuses, the British soldiers opened fire with the machine guns from the surrounding area. It was as if the heroic Tibetan soldiers had had their hands disabled, and they fell on the wasteland. The British invaders, having disabled the Tibetan soldiers, then savagely massacred them.”60

Younghusband told a different story, according to which, the Tibetan forces having disarmed, General Lhading for some reason, having agreed to the disarming of his troops, suddenly opened fire himself, shooting a sepoy in the jaw, causing the British to start the massacre, which Younghusband blamed on Macdonald. In any case, the British lost five men, while Tibetan casualties are estimated at around five thousand. The Times correspondent exonerated the British entirely: “The whole affair was brought upon the Tibetans entirely by themselves, as both Colonel Younghusband and Brigadier McDonald and the troops exercised the greatest possible forbearance and patience.”61 

In the wake of the invasion, Younghusband had a bout of remorse and a spiritual awakening that left him believing in the Gaia hypothesis, pantheism, free love, cosmic rays, and the existence of secret rulers of the world, guiding human history from their base on the planet Altair. He concluded from his experiences that “men at heart are divine”, and became a founder of the World Council of Faiths. Despite this, he fully supported the British effort in WWI.

Hubert Parry, First Baronet, c1893

Younghusband was soon joined in the leadership of Fight for Right by the Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges, and between them they set about recruiting influential supporters and organising morale-boosting events.62 It was Bridges who, in anticipation of a forthcoming Fight for Right concert at the Queen’s Hall, London, suggested to Sir Hubert Parry, Director of the Royal College of Music, that he might set the words of Blake’s stanzas to music. Parry was happy to oblige.

Whittaker tends to paint Parry in a rather saintly light, emphasising his sometimes liberal impulses. But at this point, Parry’s view was that of many, including Bridges and Younghusband: he deplored war and violence in general, of course, but supported the British cause wholeheartedly because of what he felt was the exceptional evil of Prussian militarism, arguing that the German nation had become “imbued with the teaching of a few advocates of mere brutal violence and martial aggression… it is the hideous militarism of the Prussians that has poisoned the wells of the spirit throughout Germany.”63

this throne of kings

Bridges was aware of Blake’s stanzas when he approached Parry and, more importantly, already associated them with English nationalism due to the gradual adoption of the lines in that vein, starting in the last years of the 19th century. The stanzas were included by Henry Beeching in his 1893 collection, A Paradise of English Poetry,64 where they appear without a title in a section on ‘Patriotism’.65 Beeching coupled his Blake selection with quotes from Shakespeare cobbled together from various sources, including the lines:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptr’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
this precious stone set in the silver sea

The pairing of Blake and “this scepter’d Isle” would become a staple of nationalist celebrations for years to come. After Beeching came other verse collections which included the Preface in some form. Among these was Bridge’s own collection, The Spirit of Man,66 a copy of which he gave to Parry when he asked him to set Blake’s stanzas — now associated with ideas of nationalism, at least in the minds of those who knew of them — to music. Parry did this to create the hymn we know today, albeit that we usually hear the orchestration written by Edward Elgar in 1922. The new hymn was first performed at the Queen’s Hall on 28 March 1916, where it was sung by 300 members of the leading choirs of London, as well as professional singers, and was a great success.67

Whittaker is alive to the irony of the use to which ‘Jerusalem’ was now being put:

[Blake’s] own vision of opposition to the warmongers — British and French — of the Napoleonic wars who sought to prefer corporeal over mental fight was now re-envisioned a call to very physical arms, a consecration of English nationalism in the total war against the German enemy.68

He tells the story of how Parry was increasingly alienated by the belligerence and jingoism of Fight for Right, so he donated the copyright to the work to Millicent Fawcett and her organisation, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) instead. This is presented as Parry turning away from the darkness toward the light, from reactionary jingoism toward the progressive ideal of women’s suffrage. When the NUWSS was wound up in 1919, the rights to ‘Jerusalem’ were passed on to the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI), and it was then adopted as the official hymn of the Women’s Institute in 1924. In the course of all this we see how Blake’s words can be given different interpretations, from the reactionary to the progressive. The combination of the reactionary and progressive views presented by Whittaker is implicitly treated as equivalent to the social totality, exhausting all possibilities.

the mouse that roared

Michael Redgrave in the film production of Fame is the Spur

Moving on to the period after WWI, we again see how ‘Jerusalem’ is taken up by different political tribes. In telling the story of how it was adopted by the left, Whittaker mentions the Blakean sympathies of the character Hamer Shawcross, from Howard Spring’s 1940 novel, Fame is the Spur. Shawcross starts out as a young radical activist, then slowly rises through the ranks of labour. At one point he wields a sabre at an election hustings while denouncing landlordism and then reciting the final stanza of ‘Jerusalem’ (he can be seen brandishing his sabre in the poster for the 1947 film of the novel, starring Michael Redgrave). The book, published as the Labour Party was entering into a wartime coalition to help the war effort, is about how the hero slowly becomes absorbed into the ruling classes he once despised. Many readers believed Shawcross was based on the traditional arch-traitor to the Labour Party, Ramsey MacDonald.69

The uses of ‘Jerusalem’ during the General Strike of 1926 all seem to have been on the other side. According to George Bernard Shaw — whose planned birthday speech was cancelled by the BBC lest he voiced support for the strikers — the BBC “called the nation to arms as special constables against the trade unions in defence of an alleged breach of the British Constitution… to a musical accompaniment of a choir singing Parry’s setting of Blakes ‘Jerusalem’.”70 The hymn was heard again on the BBC soon enough, in a speech by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin after the defeat of the strike, sending the miners and their supporters back to work. He concluded his valediction, “In going back to work tomorrow… can we not go… resolved in the determination to pick up the broken pieces, repair the gaps, and build the walls of a more enduring city — the city revealed to the mystical eyes of William Blake.”71 It seems that at the crucial moment, at what was arguably the time of the greatest threat British organised labour ever posed to its government, Blake was to be found harmonising with the employers. Despite that, ‘Jerusalem’ became increasingly identified with labour and the Labour Party in the years to come. That Labour had helped undermine the strike meant it had no grudge against ‘Jerusalem’.

The hero of Whittaker’s book — not counting Blake, of course — is Clement Attlee, Prime Minister and leader of the Labour government of 1945-51, who is described as “the crucial connection between the early twentieth-century labour movement and Blake’s poem.”72 Attlee, who had opposed the General Strike, is normally reckoned a quiet and rather unimpressive figure (a “mouse” according to some; “A modest man, with much to be modest about”, according to Churchill.)73 The journalist, Adam Gopnik, claims it was Attlee “who made Blake’s mystic poem… the anthem of the Labour Party.”74 Attlee quoted the ‘fighting stanzas’ of ‘Jerusalem’ as part of the argument of his 1920 book, The Social Worker, and, despite his apparent timidity, is presented by Whittaker as something like the epitome of English radicalism of the time:

Attlee establishes himself as firmly in the romantic tradition in his earliest writings and, along with invocations of Shelley and Ruskin, extends the socialist tradition of the Labour Party back to the period of the Napoleonic wars… it is Attlee above all others who was to firmly bind Blake’s poem to his vision of the Labour Party, rescuing it from an imperialist vision that threatened to subsume it in the 1930s.75

Attlee saw an unyielding bond between Blake’s call to mental fight and Labour’s determination to build the country anew… ‘Jerusalem’ … became part of the mythology of the postwar labour project, but without at least it is unlikely that it would have been so deeply embedded… it was Attlee who inscribed Blake’s words within the creed of the Labour Party and offered a vital post-war corrective to the manifestation of ‘Jerusalem’ as imperial nationalism… Attlee… held the words of that peculiar English prophet, Blake, very close to his heart.76


Attlee’s reputation, of course, rests on the achievements of the first post-WWII Labour government (1945-51), which he led in creating the Welfare State — nationalising twenty per cent of British industry, introducing a cradle-to-grave welfare system which delivered sickness, pension and unemployment benefits for all, and establishing the National Health Service, so that health was no longer something to be paid for but became “free at the point of need”. For many Labour Party supporters, this is the most successful and radical Labour government of all, laying down the foundations of our modern political and social dispensation (notwithstanding that the Tory party has spent the intervening years bent on eventually dismantling it). For Whittaker, the creation and defence of this dispensation is practically the meaning of “building Jerusalem,”77 though it is difficult for me to believe that Blake could have confused 1950s Britain with the Jerusalem of his visions. Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly true that these new arrangements represented a great leap forward for most British people.

From The Maffia to Postmodern Marketing

Mark Stewart and the Maffia, Jerusalem, 1982.

From this point on, the pace of the book accelerates. Some major events are mapped onto the themes of ‘Jerusalem’ (The Falklands War, Brexit), but increasingly it’s a matter of discussing the many different versions of ‘Jerusalem’ that work their way into the culture. Highlights for me included the discussion of recordings of the hymn by The Fall, the KLF / Justified Ancients of Mu Mu (‘It’s Grim Up North / Jerusalem’), and by Mark Stewart and the Maffia. The latter is to me the most Blakean reading on offer. As Whittaker notes, Stewart pulls the traditional Parry landscape apart, samples from it flying around like shrapnel through the music to create ‘a torrid war-zone of sonic affect’. Stewart shuffles the order of the verses, laying his emphasis on the ‘fighting stanzas’, implying that the building of Jerusalem is not a done deal, not to be confused with building the state capitalist welfare state, but an urgent task for resistance now.

The Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen is discussed in the context of anti-nationalist feeling in the late-70s, though the lyrics are misquoted so as to miss the point: “There is no future / And England’s dreaming”78 — whereas, of course, there is a future (We’re the future, your future”)… just not for English nationalism (“There is no future in England’s dreaming”). Nevertheless, Whittaker is right to say that “punk brought to the fore outright hostility to everything that the hymn and its appropriation by dreaming England represented.”79

At some point, the pace simply becomes too much, and minor versions of the hymn are crammed in which could safely have been ignored. In the event, they are sometimes dealt with so cursorily that one wonders if the author wasn’t simply copying across some marketing material: we are told that Marc Almond “began recording with the new wave duo Soft Cell”, that the poet and painter, David Jones, “was admired by W.H. Auden and Kathleen Raine”,80 that the folk singer, Bob Davenport, “espoused an openly left-wing political stance similar to that of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger”81 (perhaps he too was outraged by the Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll), and similar marketing-talk about each artist in turn. And I would not want to be the one to have to tell the ghost of Mark E. Smith that The Fall were “the longest-lived new-wave band in the world,”82 what with ‘new wave’ being a term created by industry marketeers to sell the milquetoast ‘back-to-basics’ rock found everywhere in the wake of the Sex Pistols, like the proverbial horse shit after the Lord Mayor’s parade.83 I suspect the author has taken too closely to heart the modern requirement to take pop culture seriously, even when it is Coil, Jim Morrisson or U2.84

The Sex Pistols
There is no future in England’s dreaming.

While the author clearly has preferences (many of them astute), he deals with some of the works here uncritically, in the interests of achieving postmodern inclusiveness, but with no obvious benefit to our understanding. He speaks of the divide between low and high culture in purple terms, as something “which has bedevilled these isles for so long,” as if it were Ebola and not just a mild case of Stinkfoot.85 He also sings the praises of Michael Bracewell’s “wonderful” book, England is Mine: Pop Life in Albion From Wilde to Goldie, arguing that it demonstrates that, “if Englishness is anything, then it is a true world-spanning multiculturalism, where Jamaican and Caribbean reggae mingles with American rock and roll.”86 This is a bizarre idea of Englishness, to say the least. One wonders if he noticed that the title of the book (‘England is Mine’) is lifted from the lyrics of Morrissey, a supporter of the far-right party, For Britain, who has said that our cities are flooded with immigrants, and that the Chinese are a subspecies.87 My point is not that Morrissey turned out to be a racist — which it would be hard not to be aware of if you know who he is — but that he was often seen as typically English, and the choice of his lyric for the title of Bracewell’s book reflects that: perhaps there is more to English popular culture than ‘multicultural inclusiveness’. This popular approach leads to what seems at first like an uncritical attitude to what is included in the book, until you notice significant omissions which may say more about the book than what is included, as we’ll see.

When Whittaker discusses Matt Burnett’s Wildflower, an instrumental, and  traditional take on Parry’s musical setting of Blake, we’re told that it “is a virtuoso performance by the classically trained pianist who has worked with several ballet companies… Burnett’s solo piano without vocals offers a rare chance to appreciate Parry’s music, while also providing arpeggio flourishes that demonstrate his skill.”88 I played Burnett’s Jerusalem and didn’t hear virtuosity, though that could be a matter of opinion. The playing itself is fine, if unexceptional, given what the pianist is trying to achieve (he’s certainly no Cecil Taylor). I’m doubtful about the significance of the fact that a classical pianist has been “classically trained” (as well as noting how unhappily the comment sits with the author’s earlier opposition to the elevation of classical, ‘high’ culture over the popular, with which he said we were cursed), and I don’t know what I am supposed to make of Burnett’s having “worked with several ballet companies” (like Mark E. Smith and The Fall, perhaps, in working with Michael Clarke on I Am Curious Oranj?). What does it matter? And while I don’t say Burnett’s arpeggio flourishes aren’t skilful, I don’t see their relevance to a discussion of Blake and Parry’s ‘Jerusalem’. I doubt even the artist himself would welcome us focusing on technique rather than his interpretation of the music. It’s fair to say that I didn’t enjoy this aspect of the book.

Because of those who Sleep

The philosophical anticipation of reconciliation is a trespass against real reconciliation.
Theodor Adorno89

On the last page, Whittaker makes some methodological points that went off like a flare when I read them. He quotes two elliptical comments Blake made about the nature of ‘contraries’ and ‘negations’:

Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.
William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell90

Contraries are Positives / A Negation is not a Contrary
William Blake, Milton, a Poem91

These two statements are taken by Whittaker to represent an attack on the very idea of negation. He says that by a ‘negation’ Blake meant “When one side seeks to annihilate the other”, and this he equates with “what Blake calls ‘the Spectre’ or ‘the Reasoning Power in Man'”92 He adds:

Blake… defines rationalism… as man’s Spectre, his power complex that determines to destroy the other, the utter selfishness of ‘Selfhood’ that would prefer to see the world burn than its contrary succeed. Blake’s ideal is dialectical — contraries engaged in mental fight to seek truth in their opposites rather than negations that seek to cancel out the other in corporeal war.93

His own method, then, is to avoid negation and resort exclusively to ‘the reasoning power in man’ stripped of negation, because the tendency of negation is ‘annihilation’: we should not seek to overcome or ‘annihilate’ the proponents of, eg., war, capitalism, environmental destruction, genocide, racism, female genital mutilation or imperialism, but instead must “look for their truth”. As we saw earlier, this means that the ‘truth’ of anti-immigrant racism is neoliberalism. It is not that Whittaker doesn’t bitterly oppose oppression, of course: but his dialectic disarms any opposition to it.

Jakob Böhme

Not only does this perspective lead to the amelioration of social contradictions, rather than intensifying them so they might be overcome, but, while it doesn’t follow logically (it is perfectly possible to be against negation while seeing it everywhere you look), it also leads the author to minimize the contradictions that do exist.

To see what is at stake, we can approach the problem from a different angle. For Theodor Adorno, “thinking is always the negation of what we see immediately before us.”94 The task of reason is to negate the thing it thinks about — another way of saying that reason shouldn’t take the object at its word, accepting appearances, but should look to its place in the whole, and also its resistance to being seen ‘in the whole’. This really is annihilation, as the original object is annihilated, to emerge free of the illusions that limited it: the object is transformed by such annihilation. But this annihilation is also a liberation, such that Blake, in Milton, envisaged the goal as being “To Annihilate the Selfhood of Deceit & False Forgiveness…”95 This Hegelian view (Blake’s ‘annihilation’ of selfhood is what Hegel would call its ‘sublation’), filtered through the modernism of the Frankfurt School, may seem miles away from the concerns of the devoted, enthusiastic engraver and painter, William Blake, but as Glenn Magee has shown, Hegel’s system, like Blake’s, has its roots in the thought of the sixteenth-century mystic (and “the first German philosopher”, according to Hegel),96 Jacob Böhme:97 Schelling, for instance, accused Hegel of having simply stolen his philosophy from the sixteenth-century mystic.98 Such a connection is not a historical curiosity, but is directly relevant to the discussion of dialectics, since Blake and Hegel’s shared interest in Böhme concerned precisely these issues of identity and opposition, negation and contradiction, just as romanticism as a whole is deeply implicated in German Idealist philosophy.99

From this point of view, the danger for the critic who turns away from negation is that it makes them correspondingly less critical: it is the potential energy of negation that fuels the fire of criticism in the mind. In the book, however, we see a systematic dampening of negation. The narrative of the book takes the centre ground as constituting all society, then plays out the interplay of small differences there as if it represented a Manichean clash of opposed principles — as if the differences were antitheses rather than shades of opinion. The extremes are bracketed, and social antagonisms replaced by debates in the ruling circles. This suppression takes two forms: first, the real extremes are suppressed, and, second, the differences that remain are exaggerated. Only in this way can one generate a ‘dialectic without negations’.

a stroll along the boulevard

Women of Britain Say ‘Go!’, poster, 1915.

I think we see this in the way the story is told of how Parry ended up donating the rights to ‘Jerusalem’ to Millicent Fawcett and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) rather than Fight for Right. The latter organisation’s manifesto, written by Younghusband, spoke of the need “To impress upon the country that we are fighting for something more than our own defence, that we are fighting the battle for all humanity, and to preserve human rights for all generations to come [and] To rouse men and women for enthusiastic service in the sacred cause.”100 This is in line with Parry’s own position as a Liberal, putting the blame for war on the Germans, and justifying the Allied war effort. Parry’s politics were not as remarkable as Whittaker appears to believe. He does quote Parry’s friend, H.C. Colles, saying “I have never been able to make out whether… Parry is a liberal-minded Conservative or a Liberal with strong conservative tendencies,”101 which nicely captures Parry’s essential ambivalence, but he omits the rest of the quote, which gives a better flavour of Parry’s underlying position, noting that “He, of course, would dub himself frankly a Radical and say… ‘There’s an end to it.’ But political labels do not count. The fact is that, in spite of all his sympathy with free speech and free thought, he will fight tooth and nail for the preservation of that which has proved useful… The Trade Union policy of levelling down moves him to wrath.”102

Parry’s position was also that of the British Labour Party and other parties of the Second International which voted for war credits and war mobilisation, thus splitting the international organisation of Labour in two. That Parry agreed with Labour is not an index of his radicalism, but of Labour’s retreat from all its principles in the face of war. Those that did oppose the war — including Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and the left of the German Social Democratic Party — met at a series of congresses, at Zimmerwald (1915), Kienthal (1916) and Stockholm (1917), aimed at uniting workers internationally against the war. After the Russian Revolution, these forces gravitated toward the Bolsheviks, joining in the formation of the Third, Communist International (Comintern) in 1919. Such groups formed the cutting edge of the anti-war movement, though very much working with pacifists, conscientious objectors, anarchists and others.

Whittaker tends to see angels everywhere, or rather, he sees angels everywhere he looks — an important distinction since he doesn’t look much at the revolutionary left who actually opposed the war. On the other hand, he says of Younghusband, the butcher of Tibet, that, although his statements “read like the crudest form of propaganda”, nevertheless “it is wrong to doubt the sincerity of his approach,” since he “seems to have genuinely believed that he was fighting for a universal human cause” — as if imperialists don’t always present themselves as the saviours of civilization and warriors for a holy, universal cause — so that Younghusband and Parry, with their concern for the civilizational benefits of the British Empire, are thereby elevated above the militarism of their peers.103 The proto-hippy, ‘spiritual’ imperialist Younghusband is elevated in Whittaker’s view by the singing of Blake’s hymn, and his militarism is sanctified by association. Whittaker’s polite defence of Younghusband slips into comparing him with Blake, since he thinks Younghusband’s campaign to generate enthusiasm for the battlefields of Ypres and the Somme by the commissioning of patriotic hymns is “almost in the style of Blake’s appeal in the Preface to Milton — “Painters! on you I call! Sculptors! Architects!”104 In short, the real antagonism of the time — between those for and against imperialist war — is displaced by a non-antagonistic dialectic between more or less ‘spiritual’, more or less belligerent, supporters of the war.

Thus we are led over several pages toward seeing Parry as having moved from the militarism of Fight for Right toward the idealism of the women’s suffrage movement at the other pole of his dialectic. The problem with this argument is that, while Whittaker presents these two things — militarism and women’s suffrage — as somehow antithetical, in practice they are easily compatible. While the justice of the cause of women’s suffrage is something about which we don’t need to argue, it is a mistake to suppose, as Whittaker seems to do, that it is somehow inherently at odds with militarism or imperialism, or that women suffragists couldn’t be every bit as jingoistic as the men. On the contrary, many women were keen to prove their patriotism to the government by supporting the war, thinking this would put the cause of women’s suffrage in a better position once the fighting was done. And, of course, many simply supported the war for the exactly same reasons as men like Parry and Younghusband.

a junta of pro-war militants

Sylvia Pankhurst, founder of the Workers Socialist Federation and militant anti-war activist.

According to Nicoletta Gullace, writing for Open Democracy, on the outbreak of war, the main suffrage organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), led by the Pankhursts, “turned itself into a junta of pro-war militants, distinguished by an enthusiasm for war that rivalled the radical right.”105 On the other hand, a minority of suffragettes,106 including Sylvia Pankhurst, and the supporters of the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom, opposed the war. Pankhurst had already been expelled from the WSPU for her activity in the Dublin Lockout of 1913, which led her to concentrate her activism among the poor of London’s East End, principally in Bow and Poplar. She formed the Workers’ Socialist Federation, among the most radical socialist groups of the time, joining in the eventual formation of the British Communist Party — but even there, Pankhurst was berated by Lenin for her supposed ultraleftism in refusing to merge into the pro-imperialist Labour Party.107

As war erupted, a certain Admiral Charles Fitzgerald launched a campaign for compulsory conscription of all able-bodied men not needed for essential war work. In August 1914, only a month or so into the war, he persuaded thirty women in his home town of Folkestone to go about giving white feathers to any young man who looked to them like they should be fighting on the front line, as a symbol of their cowardice.108 The idea caught on immediately with women around the country, including many suffragettes, and the movement of the ‘white feather girls’ was born. According to Gullace, “young women combed beaches, high streets, trams, theaters, and places of resort, pinning tiny white feathers to men casually strolling or socializing with their friends.”109 Some of the men affected were able to take it in their stride — the pacifist Fenner Brockway joked that he’d collected enough white feathers to make a fan110 — but many were humiliated or worse. Conscientious objectors were harassed repeatedly, receiving feathers through the letterbox in a sustained campaign, causing distress and often costing them friendships, and, in some cases, their livelihood. Of these, we hear nothing despite the very good chance that pacifists like these might have sung ‘Jerusalem’ with enthusiasm.

Millicent Fawcett, Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire (GBE)

This is the background against which to consider whether the story of Parry’s supposed transfer of allegiance from militarism toward pacifism — or at least a less belligerent pro-war position — stands up. I don’t think it does. In the first place, Millicent Fawcett, the leader of the NUWSS, to whom he donated his setting of ‘Jerusalem’, was a prominent supporter of Fight for Right, and therefore not obviously an alternative to it. Fawcett had a history of supporting the government at war. During the Boer War (1899-1902), the British burned the Boers out of their homes and placed them in concentration camps, where they died in their thousands (in two years, 28,000 Boers, mostly women and children, died, along with 20,000 blacks.)  The camps created an international scandal, to which the government responded by sending Fawcett to study the situation and write a report. Fawcett’s initial view was that the camps “were necessary from a military point of view,” since “[the inmates] have taken an active part on behalf of their own people in the war, and they glory in the fact. But no one can take part in war without sharing in its risks, and the formation of the concentration camps is part of the fortune of war.”111 To her credit, when Fawcett actually saw the camps she relented, and her report called for changes to the camp administration. But she did not change her views on the war itself, which she continued to support.

On the outbreak of WWI, the NUWSS leadership called a peace rally, but Fawcett then immediately declared that the NUWSS would fully support the war effort, because, as Fawcett put it, women needed to “show ourselves worthy of citizenship, whether our claim to it be recognized or not.”112 Others in the organisation disagreed, wanting to take an openly anti-war position, and the organisation split, with most of the executive, apart from Fawcett and the treasurer, resigning to form the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, mentioned earlier as anti-war campaigners. The point is that the NUWSS split over the war, with Fawcett opposing the anti-war faction. So, by the time Parry aligned himself with the NUWSS — according to Whittaker, because their “more respectable activities… remained friendlier territory [for him]”,113 — they included no pacifists, or anyone else publicly opposing the war, because they had all left in protest at Fawcett’s pro-war position. Not only that, but Fawcett had sworn the NUWSS off from campaigning for the vote as long as the war lasted. In other words, when Parry makes his supposed step from war and belligerence toward women’s suffrage and peace, he does so by aligning with an organisation that was working for the war effort but not campaigning for women’s votes. This is perhaps not such a huge leap.

As the more conservative of the two organisations, some NUWSS members were possibly on the streets alongside the WSPU. Sylvia Pankhurst thought the White Feather Girls and WSPU were “synonymous,”114 but that doesn’t preclude the involvement of at least some of the hardier NUWSS supporters, although, belonging to the more legalistic, less militant organisation, NUWSS members would be less inclined to take to the streets in this way. In any case, the idea that Parry was turning against war towards peace doesn’t fit the facts, even if, like so many others, he slowly became less enamoured of the war as the casualties mounted. Not being as violently enthusiastic for war as the more extreme supporters of Fight for Right does not make you a pacifist. One wonders whether the genuine anti-war activists of Pankhurt’s WSF ever sang ‘Jerusalem’ at their conferences, but that is not something we can discover from this book.

post-war settlements

If you don’t give the people social reform, they will give you social revolution.
Quintin Hogg (Lord Hailsham)

Whittaker’s treatment of the Attlee government in his discussion of ‘Empire’s End’,115 is not as misleading as with the issue of the NUWSS, but it too skimps on context in order to tell a simplified story that serves his ideal of a dialectic without negation. The argument, in this case, is that with its 1945 manifesto, Let Us Face the Future, the Labour Party adopted progressive policies in line with Blake’s idea of what it meant to build the City of God, under the direct guidance of Attlee, and based somehow on his reading of Blake. In this spirit, they nationalised the coal industry, created the NHS and built the welfare state. Not only that, but Attlee ended the British Empire (albeit “unwittingly”)116, thus implementing Blake’s prophesy that “Empire is no more!”:117 Attlee and the Labour government are thereby spiritually elevated and become the motor of progressive change.

Cartoon by Zec, Daily Mirror, 1943, criticising Labour’s failure to deliver its full program of nationalisation.

The fact that subsequent Tory governments left all this in place is said to be “because of the clear popularity of aspects of Labour’s post-war vision that Churchill and the Conservative Party did not rush to dismantle the main structures of the welfare state.”118 In this telling of history the initiative is with the Labour Party, who pass policies which then become popular, such that subsequent Tory governments did not immediately move to unpick them. But, as Whittaker himself notes, many of the core policies Labour passed were the brainchild of the Liberal economist, William Beveridge, outlined in his 1942 Social Insurance and Allied Services Report, aka the Beveridge Report. About Beveridge, we are not told whether he read Blake.

But even then, it was the pressure of the masses that really put these issues on the agenda. It was recognised everywhere that the troops who fought the Nazis in Europe were less likely in future to tolerate the disgraceful conditions they’d had to put up with as civilians before the war. The end of the First World War witnessed an explosion of militancy in Britain — even the police went on strike. Workers’ Councils were formed, on the Russian model. Many expected a revolution. This period of conflict only came to a close with the defeat (with the aid of the Labour Party) of the General Strike in 1926. The lessons, however, had been learned. As the Tory grandee, Lord Hailsham — who served under every Conservative prime minister from Churchill to Thatcher — put it in 1943, contemplating the prospect of all those troops returning home, “If you don’t give the people social reform. they will give you social revolution.”119 In promising radical reform in its 1945 manifesto, Labour was responding to this reality when the Tories, despite Hailsham’s warnings, were not: hence the Tories’ crushing defeat in 1945, and hence also their unwillingness to undo the changes when they returned to power in 1951. Not that all the new policies were even necessarily entirely opposed to the interests of the ruling class the Tories represented: everyone understood that a modern economy would require a healthier and more literate workforce than before, and the changes in health and education provisions reflected that. It was not Attlee’s study of Blake that drove these things, but the needs of the economy and the demands of the mass of people. To say this is not to dismiss the achievements of the 1945 government, but it is necessary to provide a credible account of where the pressure to do all this came from.

Soldier holding the decapitated heads of two Malayan communist militants killed by Attlee’s troops. From The Daily Worker, May 1952. The decapitation of suspected socialists and pro-independence fighters was common practice by British allied forces during the Malayan Emergency, typically done by Iban headhunters hired by British forces.

To understand what the supposed Blakeanism of Attlee meant in practice, we can consider aspects of his government’s policies passed over by Whittaker, who, in his attempt to “look for their truth”, sees only light, and no shadows, when it comes to his heroes (Parry, Attlee). We have to look at the whole picture of Labour governance, not just the conference speeches and party manifestos. For instance, Labour’s nationalisation program was aimed at controlling the economy, but it also helped save key industries that had been on the point of collapse. And generous settlements were made to owners, who were not simply expropriated.

And while Attlee may inadvertently have overseen the end of the British Empire, he did not break with imperialism. Along with many others, he simply recognised the inevitable end of the British franchise, and made plans to replace the Empire with new diplomatic and military arrangements. This was not a matter of declaring “Empire is no more!”, as Blake had done. On the contrary, it was actually Attlee’s idea that Britain should align itself instead with the emerging US imperialism, thus laying the basis of the ‘special relationship’ we hear so much about. He supported the attack on communist-led, antifascist brigades in Greece as part of the carve-up of the world agreed by the victors at Yalta, and he crushed popular uprisings in Malaya and Vietnam. Attlee had never been a pacifist — he volunteered to serve in WWI while his brother, Tom, was imprisoned as a conscientious objector, and in March 1946 he introduced conscription to appease the military.120 He was an enthusiastic supporter of NATO, and sent troops to fight in Korea. In 1945, at the start of his supposed program of building the modern civitate dei, Attlee convened the Gen 75 Committee which led to the decision to develop a British atomic weapon — but he kept its deliberations secret even from his own cabinet. All this in the name of ‘peace’. One wonders whether Blake might have considered Attlee not so much on a par with himself, but rather as yet another prime-ministerial incarnation of William Pitt, who he described as “that Angel who, pleased to perform the Almighty’s orders, rides on the whirlwind, directing the storms of war”, and who he painted in The Spiritual Form of Pitt Guiding Behemoth.121

With the onset of an economic crisis in 1948, Attlee’s government even backpedalled on the nationalisation program it had promised, cutting it short. Atlee introduced wage freezes and ordered troops to cross picket lines in order to break strikes a total of 18 times. 21,000 troops were sent into British ports to defeat the dockers’ strike of 1945. In 1950, to fund his support for the US in Korea, Attlee introduced payments for prescriptions, false teeth and spectacles, thus sacrificing the dream of free health care to the needs of US foreign policy, and causing the Health Minister, Nye Bevan, to resign.122

As with the story of Parry and Fight for Right, Whittaker keeps the narrative within narrow margins, focussing on mainstream politicians and the debates between them, while overlooking the social forces which put them in perspective and give their words the lie. He ignores radical groups and individuals operating beyond the ken of official biographies.123 It is as if a tourist visited a great capital city and spent their time sightseeing on the central boulevard, without being tempted to find out what lies in the sidestreets and suburbs around. He takes the rhetoric of important people at face value rather than bringing a critical spotlight to bear. It is heartening to see such a politically engaged book from the left, but the story told remains firmly on centre ground. Thus, Parry’s qualms about the war become a great crisis of conscience that sees him change direction, and Clement Attlee’s affection for Blake is taken idealistically to be a mighty driving force of change, rather than the dressing on his pragmatism and realpolitik. All this serves to reinforce his image of history without antagonism, driven by debate rather than elite interests and class conflicts.

all quiet down here

There is a place where Contrarieties are equally True
This place is called Beulah, It is a pleasant lovely Shadow
Where no dispute can come. Because of those who Sleep.
William Blake124

There is much of interest in this book for Blake scholars and Blake enthusiasts alike. I particularly enjoyed being reminded of the details of Blake’s attitude to English race and ethnicity,125 many of the reviews are insightful, and it is packed with incidental detail which brings some of the shadier corners of the story alive. But the central theme — the author’s estimation of Blake’s patriotism —  as well as the historical detail used to support the argument, reconfigures Blake to suit a particular political project, which is that of the so-called ‘progressive patriotism’ of Billy Bragg and the Labour Left, the Communist Party (CPGB), and others: the idea that all classes and all contending political factions can get together to build a new England in the kind of perfect harmony that is embodied in the unison singing of ‘Jerusalem’ (a harmony, we should note, that was of Parry’s making, not Blake’s).

William Blake, ‘Albion Rose’, from A Large Book of Designs, 1795.

The figure at the centre of Whittaker’s response to Blake is Albion. He can be seen, eg., in 1795, when Blake painted the image here of a man greeting the rising sun (or perhaps of the man himself rising, as the ‘spiritual sun’.) The dawn, one way or another, stands for the French Revolution and the prospect of liberty. At some point, Blake added an inscription, “Albion rose from where he labourd at the Mill with Slaves / Giving himself for the Nations he danc’d the dance of Eternal Death.” Of the design itself, the William Blake Archive says, “the figure may represent mankind transformed and energized by the French Revolution. In the second state, the inscription identifies him as Albion, Blake’s representative of humanity in his later poetry, in a Christ-like act of self-sacrifice that lifts him above the creatures of darkness.”126 Whittaker perceives the character of Albion to have evolved by the time of the writing of Milton, into something increasingly identified in Blake’s mind with England. This may be so. It is not impossible to imagine a slackening in Blake’s vision, over years of isolation and the abbreviation of revolutionary prospects, toward a more localised sense of mission: a sense of hic rhodus, hic salta!(refracted as “here is Jerusalem, jump here!”). In connection with the French Revolution itself, it makes sense to associate it with a national revival, but the creation of such an immediate identity between England and the City of God today means that, however you or I understand it, as long as Albion remains dreaming, he will easily and mistakenly be read as the symbol of an existing, idealised England, and not as Albion the sleeping giant, divided against himself. This idealised view of Albion will always be useful to chauvinists: You don’t like this country? Then get back to your own. Or, as one Brexit supporter put it, “Enoch Powell will live forever, in the true British People. VOTE LEAVE!! SAVE THIS GREEN AND PLEASANT LAND ‘Jerusalem’!!”127

This concept is the key to Whittaker’s understanding of Blake, where the aspiration to the ideal of social peace becomes something it is imagined already puts us in a unitary relationship as the children of Albion, with whom, and through whom, we can immediately identify: Whittaker says, quoting John Higgs, “This giant is everything and he is us.”128 To make this immediate identification — to ignore the negations that continue to exist despite our dream of returning to the womb, to dream social antagonisms away — is to fail to recognise that we can’t simply leap over our divisions while continuing to sleep, but must instead awaken ourselves into the war of the Zoas as a precondition of ending that war.

As Adorno warned, the anticipation of future reconciliation is “a trespass against real reconciliation”.129 This is apparent in the way that Whittaker’s desire to abolish all negations becomes a rejection of all negativity. He says that “The refusal to bear witness to the other — whether the immigrant seeking life, or the low-paid worker who sees their economic conditions undermined by the pressures of neoliberalism — is a negation.”130 This might seem reasonable as long as you understand him to be speaking of attitudes toward immigrants and the poor: but what is actually intended is a comparison between immigrants and the racists who attack them, though with the latter recast as “victims of neoliberalism”. In discussing Eatwell and Goodwin’s book on National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy131 he speaks of “the prevalence of national populism among wide sections of populations… who have often consciously rejected the dominant tendency towards globalisation,” adding that, “this should not be considered a retrogressive step to older nineteenth- and early twentieth-century ideologies.”132 He adds that “In the twenty-first century Englishness… is frequently a progressive stance to assert identity in the face of neoliberal trends as much as a reactionary disdain for foreigners”, without explaining why asserting your identity is in any way a blow against neoliberalism, as opposed to being a way of binding you to the nation-state that enforces neoliberalism It’s like saying that going on holiday with your CEO is a way of fighting the impersonal forces of market capitalism (I realise some people actually talk like that.)133 I read this as saying that, even if we are anti-racist, we should be sympathetic, eg., to nationalistic, anti-immigrant racists once we understand that the cause of their racism lies with the failures of globalism, that their patriotic chauvinism is merely a response to neoliberalism, and that we should not call them ‘Nazis’ or ‘racists’ or similar old-fashioned insults.

Even if it were right to explain racism as simply a response to poverty and the workings of globalised capital, still, to understand is not to forgive. It is reasonable to demand that the racist ‘bears witness’ to his victims, and gives up his violence; but I cannot accept the idea of asking someone who has had burning dog shit shoved through their letterbox to continue to respect their attacker. The tendency of the book is to bow to the unity we find in identifying with the Giant Albion, but it’s the unity of the graveyard, inspiring quietism and acceptance. If you picketed with the miners in 1984-85, or rioted against the Poll Tax in 1990, or if you have ever been on a counter-demonstration against the British National Party (BNP) or against the English Defence League (EDL), you may bridle at the thought of paying such respect and consideration to those who would literally annihilate you.

the curious incident of the counterculture that didn’t bite

Albion Albion your children dance again
Jerusalem’s rock established in the basements of satanic mills.
Allen Ginsberg134

Iain Sinclair, Kodak Mantra Diaries, on Ginsberg in England.

I’ve said that avoiding negation leads to downplaying social antagonisms, and have tried to show where Whittaker does so in his discussion of Parry and Attlee. Another consequence is that inconvenient negations are ignored. I found the absence of certain names from the index to be significant. In short, there’s little sign of the counterculture here, from Aldous Huxley, with his invocations of Blake in The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, that formed the headwaters of the counterculture,135through to Dylan and beyond. That great proselytiser for Blake, Allen Ginsberg gets the briefest of mentions, where it is said he thought “post-imperial culture” would “crucify, at least metaphorically, the young men of the new age,”136 which is true enough, but it would have been good to hear more of his interpretation of Blake and its impact. In a book taking as its theme how Blake has been used to justify imperialism, it would have been useful to talk, for example, of how Ginsberg and a massed choir of protesters against the Vietnam War chanted Blake’s poem, The Grey Monk, during the Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968 in an attempt to pacify the rioting police. The singing of this particular hymn is surely of note, since it shows Blake’s words being used to pacify a crowd rather than ‘rouse them up’.137

Perhaps the absence of the great ferment of the late-50s and early 60s here is because, originating in America with the Beats, and kicked into mass consciousness by Californian freaks and hippies, it is felt to be beyond the scope of a book about ‘Englishness’. But that is to assume that ‘Englishness’ develops in an English vacuum, which is not the case. Another factor may be that the counterculture perhaps avoided ‘Jerusalem’, sensing the nationalism of Blake’s stanzas, or at least the way they’d been adopted by warmongers and imperialists, in favour of a Blake more in harmony with their pacific and anti-imperialist (given the war in Vietnam) preoccupations (“the doors of perception” / “the marriage of heaven and hell” / “to see a world in a grain of sand”)  —  though Richard Holmes says, in his memoir of the period, “we all seemed to be reading Blake’s Preface to Milton. This contains the great radical hymn… known as ‘Jerusalem’, with which we identified.”138 The term ‘counter culture’ itself was coined by Theodore Roszak in his 1969 book, The Making of a Counter Culture, which takes as its epigraph Blake’s words in the Preface calling on the “young men of the new age” to “rouze” themselves.139 The growth of the counterculture and the New Left in that period thoroughly reshaped perceptions of Blake in a way that rearranges our sense of place, identity and patriotism, certainly in the anglophone world. The Blake revival associated with the counterculture was crucial to the reception of ‘Jerusalem’ and must be factored into the story here if the story is to make sense.

Blake had a great influence on British poetry specifically even before the counterculture, inspiring poets from an earlier generation, from Surrealists such as David Gascoyne, through to the likes of George Barker. Barker was one of those poets Ginsberg set out to meet on his 1965 visit to London. No doubt Ginsberg’s interest in him was due at least in part to Barker’s account of a vision he had of Blake one day on the Thames, recorded in his Calamiterror, in 1937:

It was on Sunday the 12th April
I saw the figure of William Blake bright and huge
Hung over the Thames at Sonning. I had not had this.
Familiar with the spatial mathematic,
Acknowledging the element of matter,
I was acquainted with the make of things,
But not this. I had not acknowledged this.
I had not encountered prototype.140

While stopping over in England, Ginsberg had another of his own visions of Blake during an LSD-fuelled epiphany, sat in the ruins of Llanthony Abbey, as recorded in Wales Visitation:

Remember 160 miles from London’s symmetrical thorned tower
& network of TV pictures flashing bearded your Self
the lambs on the tree-nooked hillside this day bleating
heard in Blake’s old ear, & the silent thought of Wordsworth in eld Stillness
clouds passing through skeleton arches of Tintern Abbey—
Bard Nameless as the Vast, babble to Vastness!141

Ginsberg mentions in the poem the lambs on the nearby hills. As Alexandre Ferrere notes, this is likely referring to Blake’s “holy Lamb of God” in ‘Jerusalem’.142 Ginsberg had a galvanising impact on English poetry in the 60s, especially after his star turn at the 1967 Dialectics of Liberation conference,143 as recorded at the time by Iain Sinclair in his film, Ah! Sunflower, and in the book, Kodak Mantra Diaries.144

Iain Sinclair at Blake’s Grave, Bunhill Fields, London

Sinclair himself has been a great proselytiser for the radical Blake, as well as channelling Blake’s spirit in his own poetry and writings for over half a century now, but he merits mention in the book only for saying that Blake is the “Godfather of psychogeography“, which Whittaker mentions in connection with Marc Almond’s album, The Tyburn Tree, and in the unlikely claim that Zadie Smith sees London “filtered through the lens of Iain Sinclair'”145 In his survey of British Poetry between 1933 and 1979, Andrew Duncan says that Blake was “one of the presiding figures of the 1960s in Britain”, and that “the sixties arts’ world lived under the aegis of Blake.”146 And yet that particular presiding genius is not reflected here. Blake’s influence on English poetry is vast, but is largely ignored by Whittaker (poetry as a whole is ignored, other than Blake’s). Yet it would be absurd to argue that Fat Les — a pop group formed by failed comedian Keith Allen, millionaire artist Damien Hurst and Blur guitarist and country squire, Alex James, who are discussed for half a page — are more relevant to Blake’s reception than Ginsberg, Sinclair, Huxley and the rest. The difference is that Fat Les were singing for the Euro 2000 football tournament, and football shifts more tickets than poetry. Several times while reading the book I wondered if there was something about its remit that I simply hadn’t understood, which would lead to the virtual excision of the counterculture.

Other topics that receive scarce mention include that of communism generally, and the Popular Front period of the Comintern in particular. This is surprising since most Marxists (including many who were never in the Comunist Party, for instance, those in the Independent Labour Party), were originally militantly internationalist. As for the Popular Front, whereas Communist strategy since 1917 had been based on the idea of building a ‘united front’ of all workers,147 with the rise of Hitler, Stalin decided in 1934 that the working class alone could not defeat fascism. Communists were ordered to ally themselves with anyone of any class who wanted to defeat Hitler (the strategy of ‘Bishops and Brickies’). Whereas the communists had previously been tied to the working class, now they were commanded to work with anyone who wanted to defeat Hitler — which naturally included many loyalists and patriots. Leaving aside the fact that this strategy was ineffective in defeating Hitler (Stalin eventually decided he preferred Hitler as an ally, before pivoting back to the Popular Front when Hitler let him down), it had the interesting effect of leading communists to look more closely at their own, local traditions of radicalism, rather than just to Marx, Russia and the Bolsheviks. The patriotic tenor of the new ‘line’ is summed up by the 1936 CPGB publication, The March of English History, and its aim  “to secure and safeguard English liberties and democratic rights which give us the possibility […] of making England in real truth OUR ENGLAND, the England of the people.”148

E.P. Thompson, Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law.

This turn led some members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) eventually to form the ‘Communist Party Historians Group’ (CPHG, 1946-56), which included such illustrious names as E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill and A.L. Morton. The group pioneered a ‘history from below’ approach, focussing on the plebs and commoners ignored by traditional histories. This informed their vital research into the history of British radicalism. Morton produced the first scholarly work on the Ranters, for example,149 and E.P. Thompson wrote his thrilling and brilliant, if occasionally flawed, work on Blake, Witness Against the Beast: would that all Blake scholars were so flawed.150 It is thanks to this group — who turned the failed political strategy of embracing partriotism into an inspirational program of exploring England’s radicalism — that so much knowledge was available about the English antinomian underground, including Blake and the Ranters, to the New Left which began to emerge in the late-50s as a response to the Russian invasion of Hungary, and to the parallel counterculture of the sixties which finessed it. Without them, our awareness of Blake today would be very different.

While the story of (Communist Party supporter) Paul Robeson is told by Whittaker warmly and at length (as he recorded a version of ‘Jerusalem’),151 he misses the opportunity to tell the wider tale of the communists’ turn to patriotism and cross-class alliances, and what it implied for Blake’s reception, both scholarly and popular. Whittaker claims that after the rise of the Nazis, their brand of ‘National Socialism’ meant that “for those on the Left the potential combination of nationalism and socialism… was potentially a very dangerous one.”152 Even when he says of Robeson that “it was the war in Spain.. that converted him to political activism,”153 or when he tells the story of Robeson singing at a memorial meeting for Welsh volunteers who died fighting for the International Brigades in Spain, he doesn’t mention that the entire strategy of the Communist Party there was based precisely on the Popular Front adoption of cross-class alliances and nationalism. Far from turning the left away from nationalism, these were the years when they turned most strongly towards it. As Eric Hobsbawm recognised, the great irony is that the communist movement, originally internationalist, ended up joined at the hip to nationalism: “Marxist movements and states have tended to become national not only in form but in substance, i.e., nationalist. There is nothing to suggest that this trend will not continue.”154 The CPGB’s adoption of the Popular Front led it eventually to adopt a new program, The British Road to Socialism, in 1951, with an emphasis on parliamentary reform and patriotism that deeply informs Whittaker’s approach (and that of Billy Bragg and other ‘progressive patriots’, including what remains of the CPGB155) even though he himself focuses almost entirely on the Labour Party of Attlee and Blair. We can only guess how long it will be before ‘Jerusalem’ replaces The Internationale as the hymn of the Communist Party.

Neither Jerusalem nor Jericho

The truth is neither above nor below, neither in Jerusalem nor in Jericho… but everywhere.
Joseph Dietzgen, The Religion of Social Democracy

William Blake, Milton’s track through the universe, Milton, Plate 32, The William Blake Archive.

My argument has centred on the issue of negation and dialectics, versus the author’s preference for a zen-reformist (‘return to the marketplace’) reconciliation with the world, because that is at the heart of my eventual understanding of the book. Whittaker’s points about negation are a fulcrum used to turn his work into a defence of patriotism. It is because his totality (the nation) is non-antagonistic that we can all cohabit peacefully within it as children of Albion. According to Whittaker, once we are happily united in Albion, history will not stop, but it will cease to be antagonistic, driven by “corporeal war”. It will be powered instead by artistic production and “mental fight”, which, for the author, is synonymous with Socratic dialogue and Platonic dialectics. He says, “Blake’s vision… is one of the most peculiar visions of the nation ever written, one that detests corporeal war but glories in the mental fight of countries without which there is no progression toward the truth.”156 — so much for the idea that the Greeks were merely “silly slaves of the sword,” as, on this account, it seems they had the answer to war right from the time of Plato’s Academy.157 Whittaker implies that the hope to end nationalism is unrealistic. He cites Ernest Gellner arguing that it is “easier for modern man to conceive of existence without a state than without a nation,” and Hans Kohn arguing that “nationalism is “that state of mind that demands supreme loyalty,”158 both of which thoughts are persuasive. However, he doesn’t ask just how much more likely it is instead that the imperialist and globalist lions will one day lie down together like lambs.

It is of note too that Whittaker’s conclusions are the same as those of John Higgs in his recent book, William Blake vs. the World.159 The press release for Higgs’s book says:

[Blake] appeals to both the left and the right, and his words are sung at both Labour and Conservative party conferences. He is an inspiration to both the establishment and the counter culture. He even manages to appeal to atheists as well as religious or spiritually inclined people. Thanks to political and cultural tribalism, egged on by the algorithms of social media, we are currently a profoundly divided country. The need for a figure that can bring people together like Blake has never been greater… he is such a unifying figure… due to his belief that we cannot gain a true understanding of the world if we refused to include opposing positions… William Blake shows us that division limits everyone—and that it can be overcome.160

It seems we can overcome our ‘profound divisions’ by singing a hymn and having a heated debate. This conclusion naturally leaves out the embarrassing fact that ‘Jerusalem’ is also sung, eg., at conferences of the British National Party, with whom we are also being asked, in principle, to solidarise.161 Whittaker quotes Higgs enthusiastically in the conclusion to his book, saying, “when we sing Jerusalem, we are singing about the Giant Albion: “This giant is everything and he is us.”162 Both authors, coming from opposite ends of the academic-popular spectrum, arrive at the same patriotic conclusions, and for the same reasons. The convergence of academia and journalism is perhaps due to the way academia increasingly is made to share the priorities of marketing and popular journalism, namely, in achieving ‘impact’. That a populist Blake thus conceived should turn out to be closer to common sense than Blake himself should not come as a surprise. Ideas as radical as Blake’s are difficult to absorb. Instead, we have had built for us a ‘trainer-Blake’, safe for sturdy common sense to mount. This domesticated Blake dominates the perception of him today, and dominates these books, where the solution to social conflict is something like debate plus inspiring art and inspired art-therapy — a physic thin enough to appeal to everyone, or at least not to repel them, as the authors surely surmise. Their realisaton is that this clubbable Blake might appeal to everyone — the highest recommendation they recognise. Yet this baby-gro Blake is not Blake. It seems the reception of Blake is a tide going in and out, with the sixties representing a high watermark, whereas today we risk the tide running out altogether.

Whittaker and Higgs imagine that we can merge together into the figure of Albion because we all identify with him when we sing ‘Jerusalem’. But what of those who don’t ‘identify’, who cling on instead to the radical Blake, and thereby are left outside the proposed ‘national debate’? This is what I meant in saying that nationalism “is the price of admission into a polity… from which you can’t escape”: unless you are alive to Albion, you can’t play, and if you don’t play, you don’t figure in the equations. Nationalism inevitably embodies this threat against those that refuse it. Orwell is quoted to show that patriotism cannot meaningfully be escaped: “Orwell was right to argue that there is something distinct and recognisable in English civilisation… ‘it is your civilisation, it is you. However much you hate it or laugh at it, you will never be happy away from it for any length of time.'”163 Thus the new Jerusalem tent is big enough to hold chauvinistst and xenophobes, but is designed to leave out radicals for whom “The working man has no country”. That these patriotic conclusions are based on the frictionless methodology is made clear by Whittaker when he says that “to leave [nationalism]… to those who want to exclude anything that is not them, to replace contraries with negations, is too corrosive”: it would be ‘corrosive’ to abandon nationalism to the racists.164 He does not want a ‘corrosive’ negation to insert itself between him and the xenophobes and racists, so he must join them in their patriotism, rather than oppose it, even if it separates him from those radicals and members of the counterculture for whom nationalism is a sham.165 The dream is that, on entering the big tent of patriotism, the negations that divide us collapse. Except, of course, that they haven’t, and they don’t.

your mental fight starts here

William Blake, ‘To Annihilate the Selfhood of Deceit and False Forgiveness’, Milton, Plate 15, The William Blake Archive.

The slackening of critical tension encourages the embrace of patriotism. Along the way, it also affects how vital aspects of Blake’s thought are dealt with: specifically, it transforms Blake’s ideas of imagination and of conflict (“mental fight”). In order to squeeze everything into the straightjacket of national identity, so that the vision of Blake can be turned into a shadow of Attlee, ‘imagination’ and ‘mental fight’ must be shrunk to the proportions of robust common sense: “imagination” is interpreted as the production of art and artworks, and “mental fight” becomes Socratic debate. Whittaker’s argument is that, by casting the Greeks and Romans as “silly slaves of the sword”, Blake is rejecting violence (the ultimate negation) in favour of pacifism (the peaceful coexistence of contraries in Beulah):

[the Preface] was not under any circumstances intended by Blake as a literal battle song to inspire the troops — either British or the revolutionary French — in murderous combat… Blake’s abhorrence of warfare is important considering the later uses of his poem, as well as the fact that it contains so much martial imagery. His distinction of ‘Mental Fight’ from ‘Corporeal War’ is made plain in the Preface…166

This is true as far as it goes — Blake, unlike Attlee, was against militarism and “murderous combat”, if by that we mean the excesses of war, war crimes, blood lust, sadism and the like. It is hard to think of any sense in which Blake could be said to have been ‘for death’. Blake is ‘for life’. So far, so unremarkable. But it doesn’t follow that Blake’s alternative to ‘corporeal war’, “mental fight“, is merely the converse of military conflict between nations, ie., polite debate within the confines of a shared national identity, or polite debate between nations. When Blake characterised the Greeks as “silly… slaves of the sword” he was rejecting the rationalistic, identitarian thinking that leaves one a slave to the sword, not the sword itself, which, after all, he picked up himself just a few lines later (“nor shall my sword sleep in my hand”). If Blake’s sword was not sleeping, we can also suppose it wasn’t simply being used to make a debating point, like Michael Redgrave’s sabre in Fame is the Spur. While pacifism is an honourable position, it is not the only honourable alternative to militarism.

By “mental fight”, Blake meant, not abstention from fighting, but the struggle with oneself to unriddle the identitarian thinking that leads a person to imagine themselves, eg., as essentially English, and others as essentially alien; or to see humans as essentially living, and nature as fundamentally dead, and so on. This mental struggle with oneself may, or may not, involve the production of art and poetry. Blake did not intend debating the Tory Party or the BNP; he meant the struggle we all must undergo to overcome the layers of separation introduced by the agrilogistic thought of human civilization that cuts us off from one another and from nature.167 To overcome war and militarism, oppression and environmental catastrophe, we must first fight to destroy those false identities, and consequent separations, which underlie them. Only then can we resist succesfully. That struggle is fuelled by the imagination.

to live is to dream

Cornelius Castoriadis

It is hardly a secret that Blake placed great emphasis on the power of the imagination. Yet it is also still barely understood just how fundamental it was to his thought, and how radically different a concept of the imagination he had to almost anyone else in the Western philosophical tradition. As to its importance to his thought, we need only note that, for Blake, as he put it in Milton two pages on from the Preface, “the Human Imagination … is the Divine Body of the Lord Jesus.”168 I recommend pausing a while to absorb that thought: Blake is not being hyperbolic — he thinks that imagination is the body of Christ, the body of his God. It is his God. He is saying, not that the imagination has something divine about it, but it is the fabric of divinity. This is the power he calls on in “mental fight” to overcome all enemies and obstacles. What can he possibly mean?

Agrilogistic thought is not strictly capable of speaking of the originary power of the imagination as the ‘unmoved mover’ in the way Blake did. The exceptions among philosophers would be Aristotle, Kant, and Heidegger — and all of them only briefly. Reason glories in its submission to the power of determination, making the recognition of that power the guarantor of veridical thought. But how can such Reason face the fact that at the root of all these determinations is the power of the imagination, the undetermined determiner (and hence, to Blake, God)? Consequently, the role of imagination in thought has been unconsciously suppresed. Imagination here is connected to the ‘energy’ in Blake’s observation (adopting ‘The Voice of the Devil’) that “Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is The bound or outward circumference of Energy.”169 Imagination is life, reason is only its reified husk. Coleridge was aware of the difference between mere fancy and the primal power of imagination:

The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all perception is a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.170

Note the rooting of this imagination outside of reason, in ‘the body’ (Blake) and ‘the infinite’ (Coleridge): imagination is the royal highway to escaping the endless gyrations of ‘Satan’s starry wheels’. Thus the imagination is not merely the ‘creativity’ of the artist, which is only a minor form through which it may manifest, but something more cthonic and fundamental. The imagination underpins all of our myths, beliefs and institutions, our sense of being-in-the-world, and the entire political and economic structure we coccoon ourselves within in order to support the latter. It consists of the entire social imaginary in which we live. This was the position of Cornelius Castoriadis in his essay ‘The Discovery of the Imagination’:

… it is illuminating to think the history of the mainstream of philosophy as the elaboration of reason… For what does not pertain to reason and determined being has always been assigned, in the central channel, to the infra-thinkable or to the supra-thinkable, to indetermination as mere privation, deficit of determination, that is to say, of being, or to an absolutely transcendent and inaccessible origin of all determination.
This position has, at all times, entailed the covering… over of alterity and of its source, the positive rupture of already given determination, of creation not simply as undetermined but as determining or as the positing of new determinations. In other words, it has at all times entailed the occultation of the radical imaginary…
This occultation is total and patent as concerns the socio-historical dimension of the radical imaginary, that is, the social imaginary or instituting society…
Philosophy could not avoid, however, an encounter with the other dimension of the radical imaginary, its psychical dimension, the radical imagination of the subject. Here, the occultation could not be radical. It has been the occultation of the radical character of the imagination, the reduction of the latter to a secondary role… What mattered, indeed, was to assure the theory — the view or the constitution of what is, of what must be done, of what is valid, in its necessity, in its very determinacy. The imagination is, however, in its essence rebellious against determinacy.171

Our social problems, the reality of environmental catastrophe, and the problems of autonomy we face are all consequences of the Labyrinth we and our collective social imagination have constructed around us. As Castoriadis put it, we are now at the crossroads in the Labyrinth. Our problem is to harness the same power we used to build the Labyrinth in order to dismantle it. We can’t afford to tease and fiddle with it any longer, hoping things will suddenly go right, because the Labyrinth is also an engine we have set running in destroying the world, consuming its resources. The Labyrinth now threatens to consume us in the act of our consuming our world. The first step toward a solution, if it is not already too late, lies in breaking the mental chains we placed around ourselves when we first built our civilization. We need (alone and together) to use imagination to escape the Labyrinth. And if we fail now, we must succeed at some time, or there will be nothing left of us.

It is a lack of imagination that leaves us tied to a national identity which mirrors the personal identity we must also slough off if we are to be free of illusion.

no place called home

We inhabit a world in which politics is calculated, targeted and practical, constrained by the possible, fearful of failure and inevitably modest in its goals. Blake stands for a completely different, idealised vision of politics.
Martin Kettle172

The Eye altering alters all
William Blake173

In Whittaker’s version of Blake, we are asked to identify with the nation, and use the clash of opinions and the making of art to slowly build the New Jerusalem on the basis of the nation, which is coextensive with the welfare state. Such a plan has no endpoint, and there is no sense of apocalypse or of a last judgement that typifies Blake’s thought. Whereas Socratic dialogue teleologically approaches the truth, there are no such guarantees with any program of incrementalism of this kind. The ‘mental fight’ goes on in circles as we try to patch things up and move them on, but we can just as easily slip backwards. Retrogression is just as likely as progress, because nothing really has changed, and all the evils that leapt from Pandor’s Box when we first created our civilizations are still in play. This cycle of progress and reaction increasingly looks very much like a noose that will hang us if we remain stuck in the Labyrinth we have trapped ourselves within.

The alternative is to take on board Blake’s view of conducting a mental fight armed by the imagination to break through the mental chains that keep us bound to a dying world: to break through the identitarian thinking that helps keep us shackled, requires breaking with the Urizenic identities thrust upon us in order to inform our roles in the social charade. Our destination is elsewhere, beyond the Labyrinth. To break through all those barriers would be to achieve Blake’s Last Judgement, a personal apocalypse, and the annihilation of Self. This is a private task, yet it can’t be fulfilled alone, but rather only as part of a collective breakout from the Labyrinth. If we are not prophets like Blake, we cannot do this alone. Only a real counterculture could support such a project, but that counterculture must be built first by us as individuals.

Reform or Apocalypse in William Blake
Left: an endless cycle of gradual reform (and regression) within the nation-state, fuelled by debate and artistic production. Right: the destruction of identities, personal and political, on the road to the last judgement — a collective and personal apocalypse —  fuelled by the imagination and personal struggle.

It is possible that Blake slowly began to think of his Universal Man, Albion, in a sense which tied him specifically to England. That is perhaps inevitable in an English poet, and certainly one like Blake, who drew as deeply from the wells of myth and legend as he did of those of history (thought of as the dubious work of the “daughters of memory” perhaps.)174

But there are also signs that, despite this, Blake, while he may have identified Albion with contemporary England, did not tie the Giant to England’s future or even its continued existence. In a passage already mentioned, The William Blake Archive comments on the original ‘Albion Rose’ that “the inscription identifies him as Albion, Blake’s representative of humanity in his later poetry, in a Christ-like act of self-sacrifice that lifts him above the creatures of darkness.”175 In other words, first, that Albion is identified with humanity, and not specifically the English, and second, that the rise of liberty is connected with the sacrifice of Albion, his destruction and annihilation. Such annihilation can, of course, take the form of a sublation, or transformation, in which the nation, as the locus of identity, is transformed. In that case, the new form of identity would not be national, or ethnic, or based on power structures such as the state, but would involve a new, more variegated and, dare I say, fractal, sense of belonging that would allow that identity to be shifting, and not tied to a single structure or location. Certainly it would no longer be the basis for forms of exclusion, as the nation is, in its attitude to foreigners and what lies beyond it.

You may be surprised to see how Blake’s book, Milton, ends, because Whittaker’s analysis of the Preface might imply some sort of idyl of ease to have been achieved by the end of the story. What we actually get is a rather open-ended situation, with ears of corn standing ready for the harvest, when they will be cut down. The text of the page says: “To go forth to the Great Harvest & Vintage of the Nations.”176 I don’t see this as necessarily meaning that the nations are like ears of corn, and that the target of the vintage is exclusively the nations, and nationhood. But it does seem to imply that the great vintage — a word generally intended by Blake to imply war and conflict — would take the nations and the idea of national identity down with it along with much else. Once again, the central figure, with the ‘solar’ hair and the raised arm posture, evokes Christ’s sacrifice, and a ‘going down’ in destruction, as much as it implies the satisfaction of a successful harvest.

William Blake: The Great Harvest & Vintage of the Nations, Plate 45 of Milton, a Poem. Hand-coloured relief etching. Copy B of four copies. Printed c.1811. Huntington Library. Image from The Blake Archive.
Credit: The William Blake Archives.

As Benedict Anderson argued, nationalism is a modern invention, the product of modern technologies such as the printing press, and the forging of a national identity through the creation of a shared national language, myth and culture.177 It is unlikely that Blake thought of this phenomenon, which is no older than himself,178 as part of the final dispensation, so that it would be with us eternally. There are situations in which patriotism can be galvanising, such as when a people make their nation the basis of resistance to persecution in a national liberation struggle (see Ukraine for a contemporary example, not to mention the devolution movements within the United Kingdom), but it is a mistake to make this identity into something eternal, as opposed to something of this world that must be overcome. The nation is a product of the imagination, but to reify it in this way constitutes a corresponding failure of the imagination, which is what we find in the new popular books about Blake. But this is an illusion we can no longer afford.

Andy Wilson

Conor Kostick Interviews Andy WIlson on Jason Whittaker’s Jerusalem


  1. The hymn was first named ‘Jerusalem’ by Parry rather than Blake, but we’ll call it by that name throughout, as that is how it is now known.
  2. Jason Whittaker, Jerusalem: Blake, Parry and the Struggle For Englishness, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022.
  3. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p1.
  4. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p21.
  5. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p15.
  6. See the details in Milton, a Poem, The William Blake Archive, , accessed 2022-10-10.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Alexander Gilchrist, Life of William Blake: Pictor Ignotus, London: Macmillan, 1863.
  9. Copy A, bought at Southeby’s in 1852 by Francis Palgrave, and sold on by him to the Museum in 1859, twenty years after Blake’s death. See Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p50.
  10. Alexander Gilchrist, op cit., p94.
  11. Jason Whittaker, op cit., p51.
  12. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p49.
  13. Algernon Swinburne, William Blake: A Critical Essay, London: John Camden Hotten, 1868, p259.
  14. William Blake, Preface to Milton, E95.
  15. No doubt it was metalworkers who kept the legend alive since it involved Christ and his party visiting Britain to trade in tin and other metals.
  16. See, for example, Thomas Altizer, The New Apocalypse: The Radical Christian Vision of William Blake (1967), Aurora: Davies Group Publishers, 2000, pxif.
  17. T.S. Eliot, Selected Essays, New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1960, p. 279.
  18. Carlo Ginsburg, The Cheese and the Worms, tr. John and Anne Tedeschi, New York: Penguin, 1982, p155.
  19. William Blake, Milton I 4:21, E98.
  20. William Blake, Jerusalem, The Emanation of the Giant Albion 3:2-4, E145.
  21. Niall McDevitt, ‘William Blake at Calvary’s Foot and Sinai’s Cave’, The London Magazine, June 2022.
  22. William Blake, Annotations to Berkeley’s Siris p219, E664.
  23. And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth. / These are the two olive trees, and the two candlesticks standing before the God of the earth. / And if any man will hurt them, fire proceedeth out of their mouth, and devoureth their enemies: and if any man will hurt them, he must in this manner be killed.”, Revelation 11:3-5, King James Bible.
  24. Cited in Christopher Hill, ‘Why Bother about the Muggletonians?’, In Christopher Hill, Barry Reay, William Lamont, The World of the Muggletonians, London: Temple Smith, 1983, p18.
  25. In reading a proof of this review, Conor Kostick said he worried that by using this expression, I was encouraging “incorrect thought”, and I had to tell him that is just what I intend.
  26. William Blake, Preface to Milton 1:9-12, in David Erdman, The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, New York: Random House, 1988 (1965). References to Blake in Erdman are given elsewhere as the letter E followed by the page number, eg., here E95.
  27. W.B. Yeats and Edwin Ellis, The Works of William Blake, Poetic, Symbolic, and Critical, Edited with Lithographs of the Illustrated ‘Prophetic Books’, and a Memoir and Interpretation by Edwin John Ellis and William Butler Yeats in Three Volumes, London: Bernard Quaritch, 1893, vol.2, p263.
  28. Jason Whittaker, op cit., pp56-7.
  29. Jason Whittaker, op cit., p7f.
  30. Jason Whittaker, op cit., p7.
  31. Mark Chapman, ‘William Blake, Hubert Parry and the Singing of Jerusalem’, The Hymn, 62.2 (2011), pp41-51.
  32. Nancy Goslee, ‘In England’s Green and Pleasant Land: The Building of Vision in Blake’s Stanzas from Milton‘, Studies in Romanticism, 13.2, 1974, pp105-25.
  33. William Blake, Milton 3:39-4:5, E95.
  34. William Blake, A Vision of The Last Judgment p68, E554.
  35. William Blake, Letter to Thomas Butts, 6 July 1803, E730.
  36. Jason Whittaker, op cit., p8.
  37. William Blake, Preface to Milton, E95.
  38. William Blake, Preface to Milton, E95.
  39. ibid.
  40. William Blake, On Homers Poetry, 1820, E270.
  41. “The wisest of the ancients considered what is not too explicit as the finest for instruction because it rouzes the faculties to act. I name Moses Solomon Esop Homer Plato.” William Blake, Letter to Revd. Dr Trusler, 1799-08-23, E702.
  42. Like so many others, Blake baulked at what he doubtless saw as the excess of violence when the French Revolution descended into terror. In that he was far from alone among British radicals — Coleridge and Wordsworth both famously turned their back on the revolution at that point. But rejecting the terror is not the same as being a pacifist.
  43. Georges Bataille, Alastair Hamilton (tr), Literature and Evil (1957), London: Penguin Books, 2012, p77.
  44. Christopher de Hamel, expert on medieval manuscripts, cited in Jason Whittaker, op cit., p5.
  45. Jason Whittaker, ibid.
  46. Joachim of Fiore (c.1135-1202) first developed this historicist interpretation of escatology, and the idea of the three ages of God, which directly influenced, eg., the heretical Fratricelli movement of the 13th century, which agitated for a return to poverty within the church, and spilt over into peasant attacks on priests and church property, and also, arguably, influenced Dante. Their ideas eventually achieved a wider diffusion among radical clerics and insurgent peasants.
  47. ‘Enthusiasm’, Wikipedia,, accessed 2022-10-11.
  48. See, for example, A.L. Morton, The World of the Ranters: Religious Radicalism in the English Revolution, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1970.
  49. Stephen Marshall, quoted in Bernard Capp, The Fifth Monarchy Men, London: Faber and Faber, 2008, cited in Christopher Hill, The Experience of Defeat (1984), London: Verso, 2016, p51.
  50. It should not be assumed that these ideas started from among the educated and spread to the uneducated, rather than the other way about.
  51. Henry Wilkinson, Babylons Ruine, Jerusalems Rising, 1643, p21, cited in Christopher Hill, 1984, op cit., pp50-1.
  52. Christopher Hill, ibid, p52. The study was by Bernard Capp, See Christopher Hill, 1984, op cit., pp46-9.
  53. Christopher Hill, 1983, op. cit., p8.
  54. Cited in Christopher Hill, 1983, op. cit., p16.
  55. Whittaker takes more care than I have in this essay to distinguish between British and English nationalism — an important distinction today, given the devolution of Welsh, Scottish and Irish government, and the corresponding rise of specifically English nationalism. But for most of the period we are talking about, English and British nationalism were largely coextensive, for most purposes to do with the hymn, so I have not felt the need to distinguish much between them here.
  56. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘Proletarians and Communists’, The Communist Manifesto Ch2, Marxist Internet Archive,, accessed 2022-10-17.
  57. William Blake, Milton 25/27:17-19, E121.
  58. ‘The Fight for Right Movement’, The Spectator, 1915-12-18, online at accessed 2022-10-04.
  59. This was the title of his biography by Patrick French, Francis Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer, London: Harper Collins, 1995.
  60. Patrick French, op. cit., p220. French quotes here from Phuntong Tsering, The Annals of the All-Revealing Mirror, Lhasa, Tibet, 1987, pp398-9.
  61. The Times, 1st April 1904, quoted in Patrick French, op. cit., p222.
  62. Prominent supporters of Fight for Right included Thomas Hardy, Edward Elgar, Gilbert Murray, Evelyn Underhill and Henry Newbolt. Elgar would compose the hymn Fight for Right, based on lyrics from a poem by William Morris.
  63. Charles Graves, Hubert Parry: His Life and Works, 2 vols, London: Macmillan & Co., 1926, vol.2, p70.
  64. Henry Beeching, A Paradise of English Poetry, London: Rivingtons, 1893.
  65. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p57.
  66. Robert Bridges, The Spirit of Man: An Anthology in English and French from the Philosophers and Poets, London, New York and Toronto: Longmans Green & Co., 1916.
  67. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p81.
  68. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p82.
  69. See the review at, archived at WayBackMachine, accessed 2022-10-04
  70. George Bernard Shaw, cited in Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p106.
  71. R Page Arnot, The General Strike: May 1926, Its Origins and History, London: Labour Research Department, 1926, pp228-9.
  72. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p106.
  73. Adam Gopnik, ‘Never Mind Churchill, Clement Attlee is a Model for these Times’, The New Yorker, 2018-01-02, accessed 2022-10-04.
  74. Adam Gopnik, ibid.
  75. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p107.
  76. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p123.
  77. Jason Whittaker, ibid.
  78. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p143. In this case, the misquote is easily forgiven since it is repeated on lyrics sites across the internet. And while it would be rash of the author of a blog that has no editorial staff at all to comment on typos in an academic book, there are actually quite a few typos in the book, certainly more than you’d hope for in an OUP publication — and the author’s hair may have turned a shade whiter when he saw that one of the key passages of Blake’s Preface to Milton is rendered on p41 as ‘Young Men of the Young Age’, rather than ‘Young Men of the New Age’.
  79. Jason Whittaker, ibid.
  80. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p194.
  81. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p172.
  82. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p147.
  83. See Julie Burchill, Tony Parsons, The Boy Looked at Johnny, London: Pluto Press, 1978.
  84. Not all of whom have sung versions of ‘Jerusalem’ or hymns to Blake, but it’s the principle that counts.
  85. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p20.
  86. Jason Whittaker, ibid.
  87. Jamie Fullerton, ‘Morrissey: “The Chinese are a subspecies”‘, New Musical Express, 2010-09-04.
  88. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p173.
  89. Theodor Adorno, Hegel: Three Studies (1963), Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1993, p27.
  90. William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, E34.
  91. William Blake, Milton, a Poem, E129.
  92. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p198. William Blake, Milton, a Poem 41/47:34, E142.
  93. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., pp82-4.
  94. Theodor Adorno, op. cit., p27.
  95. William Blake, Milton 16, E110.
  96. See Cecilia Muratori, The First German Philosopher: The Mysticism of Jakob Böhme as Interpreted by Hegel, International Archives of the History of Ideas #27, Springer Dordrecht, 2016.
  97. Glenn Alexander Magee, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, Ithaca and London: Cornwell University Press, 2001.
  98. Glenn Alexander Magee, ibid., p4.
  99. See, for example, M.H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (1971), London: Norton, 1973.
  100. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p78.
  101. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p75.
  102. H.C. Colles, quoted in Michael Trott, Hubert Parry: A Life in Photographs, Studley: Brewin Books, 2018, p59.
  103. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p79.
  104. Jason Whittaker, ibid., William Blake, Preface to Milton, E95.
  105. Nicoletta F. Gullace, ‘The ‘White Feather Girls’: women’s militarism in the UK’, Open Democracy,, accessed 2022-10-06.
  106. Presumably roughly in the same proportion as the number of those opposed to the war among men.
  107. Lenin, ‘Left-Wing Communism in Britain’, Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, A Popular Exposition of Marxist Strategy and Tactics,, 1920, accessed 2022-10-09
  108. Francis Beckett, ‘The Men Who Would Not Fight’, The Guardian 2008-11-11,, accessed 2022-10-06. The idea was probably taken from the novel by A.E.W. Mason, The Four Feathers, in which an army officer resigns his commission on the eve of the 1882 Sudan War, and receives the four feathers from his friends and his fiancé, who take him to be a coward.
  109. Nicoletta Gullace, op. cit.
  110. Anne-Marie Kilday, David Nash, Shame and Modernity in Britain: 1890 to the Present. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, p.30.
  111. Quoted in Paula Krebs, Gender, Race and the Writing of Empire: Public Discourse and the Boer War, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, p73.
  112. Nicoletta Gullace, ibid.
  113. Jason Whittaker, op. cit. p85.
  114. Nicoletta Gullace, op. cit.
  115. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., pp121f.
  116. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p124.
  117. William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, E45, cited by Whittaker on p124.
  118. Jason Whittaker, ibid.
  119. Cited in the Socialist Party of Great Britain pamphlet, Beveridge Organises Poverty, 1943.
  120. Attlee proposed twelve months of compulsory service, but the Chiefs of Staff threatened to rebel unless he increased it to eighteen months, which he duly did. Indeed, he later increased the period to two years to raise the manpower to fight in Korea. See Duncan Blackie, ‘Red flags and reluctant revolutionaries’, Socialist Review #186, May 1995, online at, accessed 2022-10.
  121. William Blake, Descriptive Catalogue (1809), p2, E532.
  122. Duncan Blackie, ibid.
  123. Whittaker does mention the use of ‘Jerusalem’ by the radical right a number of times —  the British National Party and National Front, for example (Jason Whittaker, op. cit., 183ff). But he treats them as an unpleasant irritation rather than a significant social force, which makes them irrelevant to his argument.
  124. William Blake, Milton II 30/33:5-7, E129.
  125. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., pp196f.
  126. The William Blake Archive, ‘Albion Rose’,  accessed 2022-10-07.
  127. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p2.
  128. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p197, quoting from John Higgs, William Blake vs. the World, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2021, p275. I made the same criticisms of Higgs in my review of William Blake vs. the World.
  129. Theodor Adorno, op. cit.
  130. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p198.
  131. Roger Eatwell, Matthew Goodwin, National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, London: Pelican Books, 2018.
  132. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p17.
  133. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p18.
  134. Allen Ginsberg, Liverpool Muse, in Allen Ginsberg and Rachel Zucker, Wait Till I’m Dead: Uncollected Poems, ed. Bill Morgan, London: Penguin, 2016, p50.
  135. Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception, Chatto & Windus, 1954. Aldous Huxley, Heaven and Hell, Chatto & Windus, 1956
  136. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p141.
  137. Ginsberg gave evidence at the subsequent Chicago Conspiracy Trial of Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and others, arguing that the singing of Blake’s poem showed that the organisers of the protest had tried to maintain the peace at what they saw as their ‘Festival of Life’, opposed to the convention’s ‘Festival of Death’, and it was the police who started the violence. See Jason Epstein, ‘The Chicago Conspiracy Trial: Allen Ginsberg on the Stand’, The New York Review, 1970-02-10,, accessed 2022-10-09.
  138. Richard Holmes, The Greatness of William Blake, The New York Review of Books, 3rd Dec 2015,, accessed 2022-10-11.
  139. Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition, Doubleday & Co., 1969.
  140. George Barker, Calamiterror VI:10, London: Faber and Faber, p38.
  141. Allen Ginsberg, ‘Wales Visitation’ 17-22, Collected Poems 1947-1997, New York: HarperCollins, p488.
  142. Alexandre Ferrere, ‘Visions, Symbols and Intertextuality: An Overview of William Blake’s Influence on Allen Ginsberg’, Empty Mirror,, accessed 2022-10-10.
  143. The conference also involved such luminaries as Gregory Bateson, Herbert Marcuse, Stokely Carmichael and R.D. Laing. See David Cooper (ed), The Dialectics of Liberation, Baltimore: Penguin, 1968.
  144. Iain Sinclair, Kodak Mantra Diaries and Other Smoke Signals, Los Angeles: We Heard You Like Books, 2016. See also ‘Kodak Mantra Diaries’, Beat Scene Special Issue, Dec 2006.
  145. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., pp173, 179.
  146. Andrew Duncan, Origins of the Underground: British Poetry between Apocryphon and Incident Light 1933-79, Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2008, pp198, 228.
  147. Though there was also the ‘go it alone’ strategy of the ‘Third Period’, in which they basically worked with no one, refusing to collaborate with social democrats, on the grounds that capitalism was about to collapse anyway
  148. Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), London District Committee, The March of English History, CPGB: London, 1936.
  149. A.L. Morton, The World of the Ranters: Religious Radicalism in the English Revolution, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1979.
  150. E.P. Thompson, Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law, New York: The New Press. 1993.
  151. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., pp112-4.
  152. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p114.
  153. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p114.
  154. Eric Hobsbawm, ‘Some Reflections on ‘The Break-up of Britain’, cited in Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (1983), London: Verso, 2016, p3.
  155. See, for example, Billy Bragg, The Progressive Patriot: A Search for Belonging, London: Bantam Press, 1988.
  156. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p197.
  157. William Blake, Preface to Milton, E95.
  158. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p16.
  159. John Higgs, op. cit.
  160. William Blake vs the World, Press Release, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, May 2021.
  161. The hymn was also sung by Nick Griffin and other leaders of the British National Party sang ‘Jerusalem’ when acquitted of race hate offences in 2005: see Jason Whittaker, op. cit., pp183-4.
  162. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p197, quoting from John Higgs, op. cit., p275.
  163. George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn, 1940, cited in Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p195.
  164. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., p198.
  165. I stress that, apart from the issue of nationalism, Whittaker makes no concessions to racism as such, and would be horrified at the thought of having done so.
  166. Jason Whittaker, op. cit., pp42-3.
  167. I am thinking here of the civilizational mode Timothy Morton says is predicated on ‘the severing’: “‘Solidarity’ cuts against the dominant ontological trend, default since the basic social, psychic and philosophical foreclosure of the human-nonhuman real that we call the Neolithic. Let’s think about dramatic Game of Thrones sounding name for it. Let’s call it ‘the Severing’. Why use such a dramatic name? What the Severing names is a trauma that some humans persist in reenacting on and among themselves (and obviously on and among other lifeforms). The Severing is a foundational, traumatic fissure between, to put it in stark Laconian tones, reality (the human-correlated world) and the real (ecological symbiosis of human and nonhuman parts of the biosphere). Since nonhumans compose our very bodies, it’s likely that the Severing has produced physical as well as psychic effects, scars of the rip between reality and the real. One thinks of the Platonic dichotomy of body and soul: the chariot and the charioteer…”, Timothy Morton, Humankind: Solidarity With Nonhuman People (2017), London: Verso, 2019.
  168. William Blake, Milton 3:3-4, E96.
  169. William Blake, ‘The Voice of the Devil’, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, pl4, E34.
  170. S.T. Coleridge, Biographica Literaria (1817), London, 1965, i, p167.
  171. Cornelius Castoriadis, ‘The Discovery of the Imagination’, World in Fragments: Writings on Politics, Society, Psychoanalysis, and the Imagination, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.
  172. Martin Kettle, ‘English radicalism needs to recapture the spirit of Blake’, The Guardian, 22nd Jan 2015,, accessed 2022-10-16.
  173. William Blake, The Mental TravellerE484.
  174. Blake made the distinction between the “daughters of memory” and the “daughters of inspiration” in several places, not only in the Preface. For example, in William Blake, Milton, 14:29, E108, and in ‘Vision of the Last Judgement’, p68, E554.
  175. The William Blake Archive, ‘Albion Rose’,  accessed 2022-10-07.
  176. William Blake, Milton 43, E144.
  177. Benedict Anderson, op. cit.
  178. Following Hans Kohn and Carleton Hayes, Anderson argues that “nation-ness, as well as nationalism, are cultural artefacts [created] towards the end of the eighteenth century…”, Benedict Anderson, op. cit., p4