You could hardly find two characters more unalike than William Blake and Hubert Parry yet between them – and a hundred years apart – they created that great English hymn Jerusalem. Blake came from a working class background, was a writer, artist and engraver who provided illustrations for many of his own writings. Eccentric and a loner, he had few friends and lived in the spirit world where he conversed with the spirit of his dead brother. Parry came from a wealthier background, went to Eton and worked as an academic as well as musician. He is said to be Prince Charles’s favourite composer, while Blake was a noted anti-royalist.
In the darkest days of the First World War Parry set Blake’s poem, written a hundred years earlier and extracted from a longer work on Milton, to music. Little known as a poem, it became enormously popular as a hymn and is sung at great patriotic occasions. We sang it at the funeral of the radical Scottish academic Donald Winch who was a friend of my late father.
Both Blake and Parry had Sussex connections. I read in the magazine Sussex Life that Parry lived in Rustington, barely a mile from where I am writing this, so I drove over to find the house where he lived which is now divided into flats. He has a blue plaque, as does his neighbour the artist Graham Sutherland whose Noli Me Tangere can be seen at Chichester Cathedral. Parry lived a comfortable establishment life but was sympathetic to the suffragettes and offered the copyright of the song to the movement. When women gained the vote and the movement was wound up the copyright passed to the Women’s Institute and it is always sung by them when they get together. It was sung in the film Calendar Girls, the true(ish) story of how a group of middle-aged women in Yorkshire disrobed and posed for a saucy calendar to raise funds for cancer research.
Blake was a Londoner through and through but came to live in Felpham in West Sussex where he had an illustrating job and where he wrote the words to Jerusalem. He argued with his patron, his neighbours and a passing soldier whom he found in his garden (probably taking a leak) and ended up in court charged with attacking the king and his soldiers. Surprisingly considering we were at war with Napoleon at the time, he was acquitted but soon left Sussex to return to London. He may have celebrated ‘England’s green and pleasant land’ in his poem but he was in reality much more at home amongst those ‘dark satanic mills’ of the big, smoky city. He remained in London for the rest of his days and was buried in the non-conformist’s graveyard at Bunhill Fields opposite Wesley’s Chapel. There was no chance of his being buried in Westminster Abbey but there is a terrific bust of him by Jacob Epstein in Poet’s Corner.
These two very different men – one a pillar of the establishment with liberal leanings, the other a born rebel who loved the ancient traditions of England – never met and had little in common but across the centuries they created our best loved hymn Jerusalem, which will be belted out by the audience next Saturday at the Last Night of the Proms.