IF a vote were held on a national anthem for England, as opposed to God Save the Queen for the whole of Britain (not that I am wishing a vote on anyone), the winner would be Jerusalem. It is already used at various sporting events and medal ceremonies, and has topped several polls on the issue.

The words were written by William Blake, almost unknown in his lifetime but now regarded as a towering figure in both art and poetry.

He was born in London in 1757, one of five children surviving from seven. His father was a hosier, selling stockings, gloves and haberdashery. William was an unusual boy from the start. At the age of four he saw God looking through his window. When he was about nine, according to Victorian biographer Alexander Gilchrist, he saw ‘a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars’.

The visions continued throughout his life. He was past 50 when he described seeing the rising sun as ‘an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty’, and his wife told a friend: ‘I have very little of Mr Blake’s company; he is always in Paradise.’

William had a normal school education until he was ten, learning to read and write, but his artistic ability was so evident that his parents enrolled him in a school of drawing. When he was 14 the family decided that he should be apprenticed to a master engraver. (Engraving was at that time the only technique for printing pictures.) His father took him to William Ryland, a highly respected engraver. William resisted the arrangement, telling his father: ‘I do not like the man’s face: it looks as if he will live to be hanged.’

Twelve years later Ryland was convicted of forging two bills of exchange for £714 (more than £100,000 today) with intent to defraud the East India Company. He was sentenced to death and hanged at Tyburn, close to the present-day Marble Arch, the last time the gallows there were used.

Presumably William’s father took note of his unusual objection, for he was apprenticed instead to engraver James Basire of Great Queen Street, whom he served for seven years, and then he branched out on his own, illustrating books.

At the age of 25 he married Catherine Boucher, the daughter of a market gardener. She was illiterate, signing the marriage register with an X, but Blake taught her to read and write, and also trained her in printing techniques so that she could assist him. By this time he was illustrating his own volumes of poetry, including Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, which includes The Tyger. His output was prolific.

And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time is from the preface to his epic poem Milton. It was printed around 1808, when Blake was 51.

There is a great deal of speculation about its meaning. In the most common interpretation, Blake was inspired by the legend that a young Jesus travelled with Joseph of Arimathea (who assumed responsibility for the burial of Jesus’s body after the crucifixion) to England and visited Glastonbury. Blake implies that such a visit would briefly create heaven in England, in contrast to the ‘dark Satanic mills’ of the industrial revolution.

Whether or not that is the case, I think these are among the most wonderful lines ever written:

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 am sure Shakespeare, my hero, would have been proud to write that.

Blake died at 70 in 1827, and there was little interest in And Did Those Feet for more than a century after it was written. It was then included The Spirit of Man, an anthology of patriotic prose and verse edited by Poet Laureate Robert Bridges and published in 1916 in an effort to raise morale during the Great War at a time when there was no end in sight.

Bridges was a supporter of a movement called ‘Fight for Right’, which aimed to increase support for the war against those who were tempted ‘to the conclusion of a premature peace’. Music played an important part in the campaign, and Bridges believed that And Did Those Feet would help ‘brace the spirit of the nation [to] accept with cheerfulness all the sacrifices necessary’. He asked Hubert Parry, whom he had known since they were both at Eton, to compose a tune for it. He requested ‘suitable, simple music that an audience could take up and join in’.

Parry, who was born in 1848, was the head of the Royal College of Music and a successful composer. Among his many works was the oratorio Judith, from which the melody to the hymn Dear Lord and Father of Mankind was taken, Blest Pair of Sirens, played during the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and I Was Glad, written for the 1902 coronation of Edward VII and revised in 1911 for the coronation of George V. You can hear it in this vintage footage of the coronation of George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1937 (our present Queen can be glimpsed a few times; she was then aged 11).

Parry loved German music and culture, and was distraught when the First World War broke out. In the words of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: ‘During the war he watched a life’s work of progress and education being wiped away as the male population, particularly the new fertile generation of composing talent of the Royal College, dwindled.’

He wrote the tune for And Did Those Feet on March 10, 1916, turning Blake’s four verses into two of eight lines each, the first verse to be sung by a soloist, the second in unison, with organ accompaniment.

Parry’s biographer Jeremy Dibble writes that the composer showed the manuscript to his former student Walford Davies, who was to conduct its first performance. Davies recalled: ‘We looked at it together in his room at the Royal College of Music, and I recall vividly his unwonted happiness over it . . . He ceased to speak, and put his finger on the note D in the second stanza where the words “O clouds unfold” break his rhythm. I do not think any word passed about it, yet he made it perfectly clear that this was the one note and one moment of the song which he treasured.’ Here it is on the mighty Wanamaker organ in Philadelphia, about which I have written before.

The song was taken up by the Suffragists and in 1918 Parry orchestrated it for a Suffrage Demonstration Concert. There are not many recordings of this setting but here is one by the MusicaNova Orchestra of Phoenix, Arizona.

Afterwards, Millicent Fawcett of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies asked the composer if it might become the Women Voters’ Hymn. Parry agreed, writing: ‘People seem to enjoy singing it. And having the vote ought to diffuse a good deal of joy too. So they would combine happily.’

He assigned the copyright to the NUWSS. At about that time the name was changed to Jerusalem. In October that year, just before the end of the war that had caused him such distress, he fell victim to the Spanish flu epidemic and died at 70. When the suffrage organisation was wound up in 1928, Parry’s executors reassigned the copyright to the Women’s Institutes, where it remained until it entered the public domain in 1968.

Sir Edward Elgar re-scored the work in a more extravagant way for the Leeds Festival of 1922, and this is the version used at the Last Night of the Proms. Here is the 2009 performance.

The prog rock group Emerson, Lake and Palmer recorded it in 1973, with vocals by Greg Lake.

It was the debut of the world’s first polyphonic synthesizer, the Moog Apollo. The BBC considered it irreverent (I don’t, I love it and I bet Blake would have too) and banned it, killing any chance it might have had of being a hit.

At the end of the 1981 film Chariots of Fire there is a performance with a descant. I cannot find out who wrote that.

A few hymnals do not use Jerusalem on the grounds that it is not technically a hymn because it is not a prayer to God, but that did not prevent it being sung as a hymn at the 2011 wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Here the crowd outside Buckingham Palace join in with the service relayed from Westminster Abbey.

By far my favourite rendition is this one, a shaky video made on the last day of term of Aldenham School, Hertfordshire, in 2009. I found the sight and sound of these young men belting it out very moving, and it brought me a little hope for the future of our green and pleasant land.

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