The Fight for Parry’s Jerusalem

Jason Whitaker

William Blake’s great poem, along with Hubert Parry’s rousing music, has become an unofficial anthem but it has a complex back story.
Frontispiece to Jerusalem by William Blake
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The Fight for Parry’s Jerusalem

On March 11, 1916, Sir Hubert Parry handed a manuscript that would transform how the English saw themselves to his friend, Henry Walford Davies, with the rather casual words: “Here’s a tune for you, old chap. Do what you like with it.”

The manuscript was the score for Parry’s setting of William Blake’s stanzas from the Preface to Milton: a Poem, beginning with the phrase “And did those feet…”, which would become more famously known as Jerusalem. Many years later, Walford Davies recalled his own experience of seeing the score: “We looked at it long together in his room at the Royal College of Music, and I recall vividly his unwonted happiness over it… I copyrighted it in the composer’s name and published it in 1916. We needed it for the men at that time.”

The need that drove Walford Davies to publish so quickly was, of course, the war: many had thought it would be resolved in a few weeks, but the First World War had now entered its third year and morale throughout the country was falling. Parry had been commissioned by a small clique that included Walford Davies to compose a patriotic song that would rouse the spirits of the nation. Yet the course of Jerusalem itself would change radically before the war had even ended, being gifted by Parry to the women’s suffrage movement, rather than serving as a martial hymn in support of soldiers fighting in the trenches.

The origins of Jerusalem as a patriotic song date back to 1893. In that year, the clergyman Henry Charles Beeching, compiled an anthology, A Paradise of English Poetry. Beeching had been educated at Balliol College, Oxford, and began work in a Liverpool parish after taking orders in 1882. Alongside his pastoral work, he pursued his love of literature through original writings and anthologies. A Paradise of English Poetry included Blake’s stanzas, “And did those feet”, as the second poem in the section on “Patriotism”. The preceding verses were drawn from a famous speech by John of Gaunt from Shakespeare’s Richard II:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war…

These lines have often been invoked in support of patriotism – although the final dark words of John of Gaunt, that “England, that was wont to conquer others, / Hath made a shameful conquest of itself”, are much less-well known. Beeching himself replaced them in his own version with the much more vainglorious assertion from King John that “England never did, nor never shall, / Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror”.

Beeching’s alteration was part of that Bowdlerisation and rewriting of Shakespeare that had been in place since the late seventeenth century. The inclusion of Blake’s stanzas alongside Shakespeare, however, marked clearly that some readers saw the poem as a work which celebrated England. This was something that was not altogether clear in Blake’s own Preface to Milton. In the prose introduction to his poem, Blake criticised “hirelings” in the camp, the court, and universities who sought to promote physical war instead of the mental fight which the poet thought necessary to build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land. Blake’s critical opinions would slowly be erased during the early twentieth century by editors such as Beeching, who also provided the title for Blake’s stanzas in a slightly later collection, Lyra Sacra, where he published the stanzas as The New Jerusalem.

Sir Herbert Parry

Beeching’s influence was significant. The first setting of Blake’s words to music came not in 1916 with Parry, but almost a decade earlier when Henry Walford Davies used both the stanzas and the modified lines from Shakespeare alongside Arthur Hugh Clough’s “Green Fields of England”. Walford Davies, most famous today for his arrangement of “The Holly and the Ivy”, was born in Oswestry, Shropshire, and began his own musical career as a chorister and then organist at St George’s Chapel, Windsor. He studied at the Royal College of Music where he met Parry, establishing a lifelong friendship. Walford Davies would eventually be appointed Master of the King’s Music in 1934 and first set “And did those feet” to music in 1907. It was first performed at the Morecombe Festival in 1908 and published with the Clough and Shakespeare settings as England’s Pleasant Land. Walford Davies’s piece is very different to Parry’s, being a much gentler version than the more famous later hymn. He was also one of the first composers to set Blake’s work to music with his composition The Lamb from Songs of Innocence in 1897.

The work of Beeching was also influential in another way. Related by marriage to the Poet Laureate Robert Bridges, Beeching’s anthologies were an inspiration for the collection produced by Bridges in 1915, The Spirit of Man. Bridges had originally practiced as a doctor before ill health forced him to retire, at which point he concentrated on his writing, eventually being appointed as Laureate in 1890. He intended his own anthology both to offer consolation to those affected by the ongoing war and also to lay the blame completely on the German states “infected or morally enslaved” by their Prussian overlords. “And did those feet” was included as poem number 411 in the section “England & Scotland”, thus completing the appropriation of enlisting rebellious Blake to the cause of English nationalism during the First World War. Bridges disliked the tune of “God Save the King”, which he considered to be of German origin, and presented Parry with a copy of The Spirit of Man, hoping that the eminent composer would create a new anthem from Blake’s words.

The immediate cause that led Bridges to make the request was a forthcoming meeting of Fight for Right in the Queen’s Hall, London. Following the outbreak of the war, the Bishop of Winchester had suggested that the words of the national anthem be changed to make them more inspiring to the troops, but instead Bridges enlisted Parry to create an entirely new hymn for the patriotic cause. Fight for Right had been formed by the officer, explorer and writer, Sir Francis Edward Younghusband in August 1915, to disseminate propaganda that would provide inspiration both to the troops and people at home. Younghusband, who, at the age of 24, had discovered a new land route across the Gobi Desert to China and, seventeen years later, led the invasion of Tibet, was also a friend of Gandhi and saw his task as infused with a spiritual purpose. Younghusband appealed to the great and the good of the country to come together and help his cause, and many responded – including Bridges, who in September 1915 agreed to find a suitable rallying song for the movement. When Parry agreed and set to work on the task early in March the next year, Walford Davies immediately published copies of the score and made them available to members of Fight for Right.

The setting of “And did those feet” was immediately recognised as a masterpiece at its first performance at the Queen’s Hall on 28 March. Queen’s Hall, in Langham Place, had been designed by the artist Thomas Knightley in 1893, and was known as the “musical centre of the Empire” until its destruction during the Second World War. Bridges took the opportunity to address the audience before the performance, calling for all present to do their patriotic duty and claiming that Blake’s poem perfectly expressed the aims of Fight for Right. Parry’s composition was sung by 300 members of the main choirs of London, as well as several professional singers, all of them conducted by Walford Davies who also led his setting of Shakespeare’s lines from England’s Pleasant Land. The music was printed by J. Curwen and sons and sold for twopence, with copies being made available from the Secretary of the Fight for Right Movement under the title “And Did Those Feet In Ancient Time, Stanzas from William Blake’s ‘Prophetic Books’”. All looked set for the hymn to become a permanent fixture of British imperialism.

Yet there was one problem: Parry. Parry had sometimes found himself at odds with the government in the early stages of the war, as when he had sought, unsuccessfully, to prevent the internment of his German servant of twenty years, George Schlichenmeyer. He was always loyal to the war effort, but many friends and acquaintances recognized that Parry was becoming more and more taciturn as the fighting continued. In August 1916, James Frazer, renowned author of The Golden Bough and another member of Fight for Right, asked Parry to write a song for him: Parry refused, and instead conducted Jerusalem for the women’s Albert Hall Choir in March 1917. In May, he wrote to Younghusband, withdrawing his support from Fight for Right, and in the intervening months he devoted his time increasingly to the cause of women’s suffrage, primarily through his and his wife’s friendship with Millicent Fawcett.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett was born in Suffolk before being sent to London to study at a school in Blackheath. Hearing a speech by John Stuart Mill at the age of 19, she was profoundly affected by his support for women’s equal rights and, shortly afterwards, became secretary of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage. Mill introduced her to the Liberal MP Henry Fawcett, whom she married in 1867, and both supported or were interested in a number of radical causes, such as republicanism and trade unionism as well as women’s suffrage. In 1890, she became leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), and as early as 1892 Parry’s wife, Lady Maude, was attending NUWSS meetings. Over the following decades, both Lady Maude and Parry became ever more supportive of Fawcett and her cause, and when Parry finally rescored Jerusalem for an orchestra that version was performed not for the benefit of Fight for Right, but during a suffrage demonstration concert in March 1918.

Parry wrote warmly to Fawcett after the concert, agreeing with her wish that it would become known as “the Women Voter’s hymn”. His correspondence with her was one of the bright spots of the final months of his life. The woods around his home had been devastated to provide supplies for the war effort, and—as for most Britons—the Parrys suffered from food shortages, which almost certainly contributed to Parry’s final illness. More than this, his greatest successes as a composer had arisen from his admiration of German music and culture, and he had been almost grief-stricken when England and Germany declared war on each other. Before his death from Spanish flu in October 1918, he passed the copyright for Jerusalem to the NUWSS, after which it was transferred to the National Federation of Women’s Institutes.

While best known today for its inclusion in Last Night of the Proms, and typically sung at Jubilees and sporting events, the early history of “Jerusalem” was surprisingly contested. It had never occurred to Establishment figures such as Henry Walford Davies, Robert Bridges and Francis Younghusband that this new composition would be anything other than a patriotic and nationalist hymn in the most rigidly defined sense. What they had not expected was that it would be Parry who wished to take up the mental fight of building a much more liberal Jerusalem, one where his song would become the hymn of women voters everywhere.

Jason Whittaker is an academic and writer and the author of Divine Images: The Life and Work of William Blake and his latest book, Jerusalem: Blake, Parry, and the Fight for Englishness.

Aspects of History Issue 17 is out now.