Prime Minister picks Jerusalem for English anthem

Blake’s original text of ‘And did those feet in ancient time’ – the lyrics to Jerusalem.

England does not have its own national anthem. Today, there is talk of that changing – and David Cameron has put forward Jerusalem as his favourite for England’s official song.

Deutschland Uber Alles plays tribute to the wine and women of Germany. India’s Jana Gana Mana marks the astonishing diversity of the Subcontinent. Wales and Scotland recognise their heritage with their own national anthems. But at sporting fixtures and national events, England does not have its own official song.

Instead, the British anthem God Save the Queen often stands in as England’s national tune. Now, however, many think the country should adopt its own. David Cameron has even put forward his personal choice: the patriotic hymn, Jerusalem.

The lyrics of this national favourite were written two hundred years ago, by the visionary poet William Blake. They were inspired by the idea that Jesus Christ may have travelled to England during his lost years, to create a peaceful heaven-on-earth – a ‘new Jerusalem’.

For over a century, the poem was barely known. But when the First World War broke out, its message took on a new meaning. Composer Hubert Parry was asked to set the words to a tune that would ‘brace the spirit of the nation’ to accept war’s sacrifices ‘with cheerfulness’. He obliged – and after being performed at a meeting of the morale-raising ‘Fight for Right’ campaign, his version became a national favourite.

But the story is more complicated than it looks. Parry had serious doubts about the pro-war patriotism of Fight for Right, and in 1917, he withdrew his support.

The rights to the song were transferred to the Suffragettes, and, to Parry’s delight, it became the Women Voters’ Hymn.

The lyrics, written in a time of political and social turmoil, are also controversial. William Blake believed that normal people were oppressed by the social hierarchies and restrictive expectations of his day. He worried that cramped, urban living and repetitive factory work created poverty and spiritual stagnation. Many believe his talk of ‘building Jerusalem’ among England’s ‘dark satanic mills’, is a reference to the creation of a Socialist utopia – an imagined, better society, where the people ruled themselves.

New Jerusalem?

Many people think this ambivalence would make Jerusalem a great national anthem. As well as presenting a ‘green and pleasant land’ and an optimistic vision for the future, it reflects on the suffering and difficulty all countries face. Rather than putting forward some idealised mirage, Jerusalem embraces England in all its messiness and imperfection.

But is this really what national anthems are about? Many people would rather keep ‘dark satanic mills’ out of their patriotic tunes. A national song should be rousing, jolly and full of pride – not a medium for social criticism and reflections on the hidden darkness of society.

You Decide

  1. Would Jerusalem make a good national anthem for England?
  2. What is the purpose of a national song?

Activities

  1. Choose your favourite song, and make a case for it becoming your nation’s anthem.
  2. Compose a new national anthem for your own country.

Some People Say...

“Patriotism is for fools.”

What do you think?

Q & A

When is Jerusalem sung today?
It is sometimes known as a left-wing anthem, and is sung annually by the Labour Party. England’s national teams in rugby and cricket have adopted it and crowds sing it each year at the Last Night of the Proms.
What would happen if it was made official?
If it was made official English teams would sing it at all sporting events. It wouldn’t cover the Olympics, though – athletes represent Great Britain rather than England, and sing God Save the Queen.
What are the other options?
Edward Elgar’s Land of Hope and Glory, is a popular choice, although its fervent references to the expansion of the British Empire are controversial. Another favourite is I Vow to Thee, My Country, composed by Gustav Holst, which celebrates unwavering loyalty and love for a nation.

Word Watch

Wine and women
The Deutschlandlied, Germany’s national anthem, celebrates the successes and strengths of Germany. It is best known by the lines 'Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles’, and pays particular attention to ‘German women, German loyalty, German wine and German song.’
Astonishing Diversity
India’s national anthem was written by Rabindranath Tagore, one of India’s most famous poets. Its lyrics are Bengali, but recognise many different areas of India, including Punjab, Gujarat and Orissa.
Fight for Right
The Fight for Right movement was founded by an ex-colonialist named Francis Younghusband. He viewed the First World War not just as a military conflict, but a spiritual fight for noble, moral ideals. In the first years of the war, his ideas attracted a great deal of support, and a popular movement emerged around them.
Suffragettes
Members of the women’s suffrage movement campaigned for women’s right to vote, particularly during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Many were imprisoned and endured hunger strikes during their campaign; one, Emily Davidson, died after throwing herself under the King’s horse in protest. In the UK, women over thirty were given the vote in 1918; ten years later, the right was extended to all women over the age of 21.

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