The rector and the revolutionary
Blake would have relished the clergyman who banned Jerusalem
The Guardian, 11 August 2001
With so many trying to claim a share in William Blake’s legacy these days, it’s refreshing to see someone roundly reject him. The Reverend Donald Allister, rector of Cheadle, may even have done Blake a favour. Certainly he’ll make a lot of people think twice about the familiar hymn Jerusalem, belted out with patriotic fervour at Women’s Institute assemblies and Tory party conferences.
At first glance, a ban on this staple of English nationalism would seem a crass example of “political correctness gone mad”. But in this case the banning has been done by a Church of England traditionalist who condemns sex outside marriage and believes his job is “to encourage people in orthodox Christian thinking”.
Allister believes that Blake has no role in a wedding ceremony and no place in a church. And he is right, though his clerical superiors may not thank him for blowing the gaff on the establishment’s century-long effort to incorporate an intransigent opponent.
Blake rejected all organised religion, declaring “The outward ceremony is antichrist”. He condemned religion as a warper of human sexuality. In his lexicon, the words “chastity” and “abstinence” were curses. “In the resurrection, man changes his sexual garments at will,” he wrote, a notion that has yet to be adopted, as far as I know, in any religion’s creed.
Even more worrying for conservatives, Blake viewed marriage as a corrupt social institution: “She who burns with youth, and knows no fixed lot, is bound/ In spells of law to one she loathes”. Like its dark underside, prostitution, marriage was a means “to freeze love and innocence into the gold and silver of the merchant”.
So the Reverend is right to be worried about using Blake as part of the marriage sacrament. Ironically, he demonstrates greater sensitivity to what the words of Jerusalem actually mean than the generations of jingoists who have sung them with blithe and stately belligerence. What Blake is driving at is indeed, as Allister notes, that “England is in a mess and the church can’t sort it out”. It’s a challenge to national complacency.
But when Allister criticises Jerusalem for promoting a war-like nationalism, he’s as wide of the mark as those who would claim Blake for religious orthodoxy. For Blake’s generation, the language of “patriotism” was the language of democratic revolution. “To build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land” was, for Blake, to take part in a universal human uprising against kings, priests, and all those who made and profited from war. In an age when nation states were emerging as the dominant form of human organisation, he was resolutely internationalist.
Blake was a supporter of the French revolution; in the 1790s he sported the red bonnet of Jacobinism through the streets of London. For all his despair at the aftermath of that revolution, he remained ferociously anti-Tory and unashamedly republican. Among the last words he penned, in 1827, was a prayer that we have “all things common among us”. Without doubt he was, as Allister fears, a “proto-socialist”.
These days everyone seems to want a piece of Blake. Last year’s exhibition at the Tate was sponsored, surrealistically, by Glaxo-Wellcome. It’s not hard to imagine the penurious engraver’s indignation at the pharmaceutical industry’s antics. After all, he did insist that “where any view of money exists art cannot be carried on but war only”.
In the forecourt of the new British Library there is a monumental bronze sculpture derived from Blake’s painting of Newton bending forward to impose his giant compass on the earth. Presumably the library’s trustees meant it as a tribute to British scholarship. However, in the context of Blake’s work, Newton is one of the trio of “deists” (along with Bacon and Locke) responsible for reducing humanity to cogs in a machine, labouring at those “dark, satanic mills”, and the image is a comment on the limitations as well as the power of science.
A contrasting invocation of Blake can be found in a rubbish-strewn pedestrian passageway in Hackney. Here, amid the graffiti plugging Arsenal or the Real IRA, some local insurgent has quoted The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “A mind that never changes is like still water and breeds reptiles”. Bracing stuff. But then the same aphorism was deployed by a New Labour spokesperson in defence of Shaun Woodward.
Some decades ago, Allen Ginsberg helped rescue Blake from the academy, and through his influence on Bob Dylan, some of Blake’s visionary radicalism was injected into modern popular music. On her recent visit, Patti Smith was still proudly upholding this bardic-ecstatic tradition. Blake has also been made to prop up a variety of New Age pieties, not entirely inappropriately (he did say, “A robin redbreast in a cage/ Puts all heaven in a rage”). What’s too often missing, sadly, is the man’s marvellous bloody-mindedness, his determination to challenge power and to separate, as he liked to say, the sheep from the goats.
Blake is an artist and thinker with a hard, uncompromising edge. As he himself insisted, “without contraries is no progression” – and strangely enough Allister offers precisely the kind of “contrary” Blake would have relished (certainly more than the soft soap treatment he gets from so many others). “The vision of Christ that thou dost see/ Is my vision’s greatest enemy,” he observed, “Thine loves the same world that mine hates/ Thy heaven doors are my hell gates.”