David Cameron recently said that his preferred English national anthem, for use at sporting occasions and the like, would be ‘Jerusalem’. (I agree: if you’re not going to have the theme tune of The Archers, then ‘Jerusalem’ is the best-available option.) And it turns out the history of the song is even stranger than I thought it was.
Let’s do this backwards.
In 1968 the song entered the public domain after the copyright on it expired, fifty years after the death of its composer, Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918). That copyright had been held by the Women’s Institute, and they held it because it was transferred to them by Parry’s executors in 1928, when the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies was being wound up, thanks to the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act of the same year. And Parry had assigned the copyright to the NUWSS towards the end of his life because he was so pleased with Millicent Fawcett’s enthusiasm that his song should be, as she called it, ‘the Women Voters’ Hymn’.
Now we’re heading towards the bits of the story I didn’t know before today.
If you read the Wikipedia article, “And Did Those Feet In Ancient Time”, you learn that Blake’s text was rescued from comparative obscurity when it was re-published by the Poet Laureate, Sir Robert Bridges, in an anthology of poems, The Spirit of Man [pdf], in support of the war effort in 1916. And it was Bridges who suggested to Parry that it be put to music, specifically for a meeting of the Fight for Right campaign in March that year at the Queen’s Hall (which was later destroyed in the Blitz, which is why the Proms are now held at the Royal Albert Hall instead).
Now on the Fight for Right campaign, Wikipedia says this (in the article on ADTFIAT): ‘The aims of this organisation were “to brace the spirit of the nation, that the people of Great Britain, knowing that they are fighting for the best interests of humanity, may refuse any temptation, however insidious, to conclude a premature peace, and may accept with cheerfulness all the sacrifices necessary to bring the war to a satisfactory conclusion”’, which makes it sound like a crazy jingo campaign, and clearly on some level it was.
But it becomes more interesting when we add in this information, from tehgraun‘s Notes & Queries:
SIR Francis Younghusband was an imperialist (in India), a soldier and the conqueror of Tibet. Later, his views changed and he became a mystic, a friend of Gandhi and an idealist. On August 4, 1915, he published a letter in the Daily Telegraph, which ended: “We are engaged in a spiritual conflict – a holy war – the Fight for Right.” His words took off. By the end of August he had funds, helpers, an office and meetings up and down the country. He was supported by many well-known writers and public figures. Younghusband’s aim was to achieve something better and more lasting than a purely military victory…
And then there’s the stuff about Bridges and Parry and the composition of ‘Jerusalem’, and so on, adding the detail that Younghusband ‘hoped the sentiment would embrace all religions rather than just Christianity, but the movement fizzled out at the end of 1917, largely because of conflict between the jingoists and the idealists’. (It’s not hard to think of reasons why the Gandhians and the imperialists might have had a falling out, I suppose.)
Well, it was in 1917–after the slaughter of the Somme, before the final fizzling of Fight for Right–that Parry withdrew his song from this campaign and reassigned it to the suffragists. (Perhaps he wanted it to be attached to something?) And the rest, as they say, is (the at least slightly more familiar) history.
Patrick French’s Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer (Flamingo, 1995) is apparently the place to go for more on this kind of thing. And “Jerusalem” is back in the news this month for happily non-David-Cameron-related reasons, because Prof. Jeremy Dibble at Durham has been reconstructing the original version of the song, whose first stanza was apparently scored for solo soprano.