Each year at the last night of the proms the orchestra plays, and the people sing, Jerusalem – the words of William Blake set to the memorable music of Hubert Parry. Union Jack flags are waved and a little earlier Rule Britannia will have been sung. To the observer it comes across as an expression of British nationalism.
It is, in part, because of this that some clergy, including some bishops have spoken up against Jerusalem being sung in churches. Another reason given is unease at the vision the poem seems to portray.
The current outstanding exhibition in Tate Modern, London of artistic works of William Blake describes Blake as ‘Rebel, Radical, Revolutionary.’ ‘Mystic’ doesn’t begin with an ‘R’ so it couldn’t easily be added to the list.
But mystic Blake was, and a remarkable and unorthodox one too. The exhibition clearly shows how he passionately wrestled with personal faith and with the forces of good and evil, of hope and despair. For Blake symbol and image are profound, and often ambiguous. Suffering, death and the depths of humanity are faced, and the artist gives hope and redemption in an original and deeply spiritual way. Remarkably, he lived and worked in a small area of London, for most of his life living within a 20 minute walk of his Soho birthplace.
Blake hoped that some of his art would be large scale, like the sacred art of ancient Egypt or Persia. It was not to be, but a fascinating projection in the exhibition shows how a large work of his behind the altar of St James, Piccadilly (his parish church) would have looked. Challenging indeed!
His work, as the curator of the exhibition comments more than once, is often ambiguous, defying simple explanation. His deep symbolism fuels and challenges the imagination, while not providing easy answers.
We will sing ‘Jerusalem’ from time to time at St Chrysostom’s! When we do we must remind ourselves that its author was a revolutionary mystic, and not a jingoistic nationalist. Blake offers us a radical, rebel, revolutionary vision in his poem, let that vision find a place in our church.