Visionary or madman?
Listening to the English crowd belting out the words of “Jerusalem” at a recent Six Nations rugby match, I was once again intrigued by the mysticism of William Blake’s lyrics. Now, there was a man who saw and closely embraced the ghosts of the past. A born and bred Londoner, he famously saw his first vision at the age of eight – angels in the trees at Peckham Rye.
As an adult, the division between the mundane, so-called “real” world and the spiritual world beyond the veil, became ever thinner for Blake. His philosophy was based on refuting the scientific thinking which developed after the age of Enlightenment. His world view was based in symbolism and spirituality.
A true free spirit
Blake famously advocated free love – this is in the early eighteen hundreds- and suggested to his wife that a concubine might share their household. It is recorded that Mrs. Blake was perhaps not quite as keen. Additionally, to the consternation of visitors to his home, he was prone to converse with his guests whilst entirely naked. His wife Catherine once said,
” I have very little of Mister Blake’s company; he is always in Paradise”.
His visions of the mythical creature Albion, (the original name of the Romans for Britain) were the inspiration for my pseudonym for these pages.
Jerusalem in England?
But what lies behind the words of Blake’s most famous poem, known to every English rugby fan?
“And did those feet in ancient times // Walk upon England’s mountains green?”
(Incidentally, I cannot understand why Jerusalem is not sung at Rugby matches as England’s anthem, rather than “God save the Queen”, which surely applies to all home nations playing the noble game, not only England. Rant over).
The feet Blake describes belong to Jesus Christ. Blake is recounting the legend that Jesus as a young boy accompanied his uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, on a visit to England. This seems absolutely far-fetched and the stuff of the whackiest conspiracy theories. However, they may be a grain of truth in the legend.
Neil Oliver, in his fascinating book “The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places” (thank you for my Christmas book, CR and DR), speculates that this mythical trip actually lies within the realms of possibility. Britain has never been an isolated place; there has always been a thriving interchange of people, trade and cultures between these islands and the Continent and beyond.
Far before the Christian era, there was a thriving trade in tin, between the Phoenicians of the Levantine (modern day Israel and Palestine) and Cornwall. Legend has Joseph as a tin trader. He just might have visited the south west of Cornwall, where the tin trade has been plied since pre-Roman days, and bought along his young nephew.
The Glastonbury thorn – a digression
A short hop from Cornwall to Somerset – and to Glastonbury. A thorn tree which still blooms on Glastonbury tor (when it has not been hacked down again by vandals). It is supposed to have sprung from where Joseph had placed his staff. It is a specific species of hawthorn, which uniquely blooms at Christmas as well as in spring, but who can now prove its origins?
There is every chance of course, that the wily medieval monks of Glastonbury abbey used their PR skills to attract pilgrims – the tourists of their day – by embellishing such biblical stories. Of course, Joseph also brought to Glastonbury, according to those monks, the Holy Grail, the cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper.
“Look what we’ve found!”
They were competing against the like of Thomas a Becket’s tomb in Canterbury for the shillings of the pious. You have only to consider their “miraculous” discovery of the tombs of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere on Glastonbury tor, to admire their clever marketing tactics, which endure to this day.
The past in plain sight
So what of Blake and his visions today? Is there a present legacy? Certainly yes. A trip to Primrose Hill in North London gives wonderful views over the capital……
…….and a chance to see the sculpture which showcases his perhaps most famous quote:
His paintings and engravings are immediately recognisable, even if the symbolism within them are not.
Album covers borrow heavily from him (Dear Millennials – they’re the cardboard things that protect vinyl records). Look at Albion from the Strawbs, Death Walks Behind You from Atomic Rooster. Musicians reference his work – Dylan and Ginsberg collaborated on projects based on his poetry. Books and their derived films reference Blake: works such as Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, which uses Blake’s eponymous artwork for the villain’s tattoo.
Everyone know the opening line of “Tyger, tyger”…..Above all, the wonderful, mad, impossible, joyful words of Jerusalem keep his legacy alive.
But this post is not only about Blake’s presence in the present, it’s about the living legacy of his greatest work: the infinitely tiny, but still possible proposition that Those feet, in ancient times really did walk upon England’s mountains green. Perhaps.
PS. Good reads