Singing ‘Jerusalem’ in New Zealand

Music in the Air Summer 2002, p.13-14.

Keywords Literature; Political Economy & History.

I loved singing ‘Jerusalem’ in the full voice of my school assembly – especially the militancy and optimism of the last two verses – so much so that on the day I left I asked that it be sung for a last time.

Unbeknown to me, another boy in the school, Bruce Jesson, took a very different view. Years later, he wrote “state schools…were even more English in their tone than their curriculum. ‘Jerusalem’ was sung in school assemblies”. Bruce is the subject of the envoy in my book, The Nationbuilders, which quotes this as a part of a longer passage setting down his view of how English Christchurch was. Attending the funeral of another good friend, Bryan Philpott, I was struck by the appropriateness of some of the final lines we sang, ‘I shall not cease from mental fight/nor shall my sword sleep in my hand’. Bryan was a battler right to the end of his 79 years – as Bruce was to his 56.
So I was forced to confront the hymn.

I noticed I had also used it at the end of the chapter on Peter Fraser, who modified the last line, as I do, to: ‘Till we have built Jerusalem/In this our green and pleasant land’. Moreover, I discovered I had used the image of Jerusalem in the opening page of the book, talking about the aspirations of our ancestors coming to New Zealand:

“For them, New Zealand was a land to be transformed into an Arcadia where the wrongs and mistakes of the Old World could be left behind, and a new society built. This vision of a new Jerusalem was a part of the rhetoric of this new colony, as it is for many others. It goes back to Revelations, 21:1, ‘And I John, saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming from God out of heaven prepared as a bride for a bridegroom’, but perhaps Thomas More’s 16th century classic, ‘On the Best Form of the State, and the New Island of Utopia’, began to concentrate the mind on the building of one in this world (especially the New World which was being discovered about that time) .”

There was no getting away from it. I could not leave the bits of ‘Jerusalem’ hanging loosely around in the book.

I began reading around the history of the poem. Oddly, it does not come from Blake’s long poem, ‘Jerusalem’, but is part of the prologue of his as-long ‘Milton’ written about 1802. Suddenly, the prose bursts into an untitled poem of two verses, which is usually anthologised under the title ‘And did those feet in ancient times’. We use ‘Jerusalem’ as title for the hymn with Herbert Parry’s score, which when done with full organ has an Elgarian pomp and circumstance which Blake may not have approved of, and I certainly don’t. All very confusing, because that means Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ is not Blake’s hymn of that name.

Even more confusing is that Bruce would have agreed with William Blake’s general sentiment. The prose prologue preceding the poem has Blake rejecting ‘Greek (and) Roman Models if we are true to our own Imaginations’, in favour of a local one – precisely Bruce’s concern, to create an authentic local culture, albeit two hundred years later and twelve hundred miles away.

The poem’s Englishness is further compromised by a note in an American anthology of English language poems which remarks:

“Blake’s words are very likely the most inspiring ever written by an Englishman for Englishmen. A grand tradition of rugged struggle in politics and religion extends from John Milton and John Bunyan in the seventeenth century, through Blake and Wordsworth in the eighteenth and nineteenth, down to our own times in writers as diverse as W.B. Yeats and Joyce Carey”(1).

Yeats and Carey were Irish. But then again Fraser was a Scottish Celt. No doubt some at the school Bruce and I attended believed they were singing about ‘England’. But others were singing about their ambitions for New Zealand. For them, England was as much a geographical reality, as Jerusalem was for Blake, who never travelled outside Britain.
‘Jerusalem’ was not the only puzzle in the writing of The Nationbuilders, and it interacted with another.

One biography in the book is that of Colin McCahon –one of the two creative workers, the other being Denis Glover. I included him, partly because whenever I write I am overwhelmed with strong visual images, and McCahon’s works vividly convey the interaction between the environment and the nationbuilding which was always transforming – and often destroying – the environment.

One of the enormous jumps McCahon made was the introduction of biblical scenes into his New Zealand landscapes. In one sense he was doing no more than the practice of Renaissance Italian painters, but they put the bible in Italy because they had no way of knowing what Palestine looked like. But what led McCahon to his vision?

At this point the story is a wild goose chase, of the sort researchers are familiar with. I conceived the possibility that McCahon was inspired by Blake. Surely, I thought, the mystical McCahon must have known the mystical Blake? While I found no evidence that McCahon knew of Blake in 1946 when he began his biblical paintings, I conjectured that when he first met James (Hemi) K Baxter in 1943, as reported by Gordon Brown in the standard McCahon biography (2), Baxter introduced him to Blake. However, some intricate scholarship by Peter Simpson (3), has demonstrated that the meeting was actually in 1947, as Brown thought, and so too late to inspire the innovation.
My current conjecture is that if there was a local inspiration, it was the poet Charles Brash, who had been in Palestine and likened its hills to those of Central Otago. Brash returned to New Zealand in early 1946, and it is possible (a personal meeting, or a letter, perhaps?) he might casually have mentioned the parallel.

Diligently chasing the goose, I had asked Jacqueline Sturm, Baxter’s wife, if Hemi knew Blake. Her answer was ‘of course’. I asked if he did when he was an adolescent – I was still thinking the meeting was in 1943 – and she said that she was not sure, but he would have sung ‘Jerusalem’ at school. And then she added that Baxter would refuse to stand up in the cinema for ‘God Save the Queen’, but in a room when the radio played ‘Jerusalem’, he would spring to attention, sometimes so choked with emotion that he could not sing the words.

Of course he sang ‘Jerusalem’ at school in Dunedin. So did Sonja Davies, another who appears in my book. We all sang ‘Jerusalem’ at school: me, Bruce, Bryan, Peter, Hemi, Jacqueline, Sonja, you…And so must have Colin McCahon. So it is plausible that ‘Jerusalem’ inspired this new direction in his painting, perhaps reinforcing any stimulus from Brash.

And there the book leaves the matter of ‘Jerusalem’, or the final sentence does, as it commends the commitment of the nationbuilders to building ‘a Jerusalem in this our green and pleasant land’. But I need to add a little more about where ‘Jerusalem’ is in the canon of being a New Zealander.

Like Bruce, and many other New Zealanders, I am uncomfortable with that first verse. But should we rewrite it to maintain the marvellous force of the second? Probably not. The Nationbuilders discusses our cultural origins, and our relation with today’s England (or Britain if we include the Celtic nations). There has been a tendency to see England as ‘the mother country’. That is wrong and misleading. The England of Blake and of Shakespeare is the land of many our ancestors, and one of the most important cultural sources for all New Zealanders. We may call that England a ‘mother’ although in the whakapapa she is more a grandmother, perhaps with a few ‘greats’ thrown in. But the England of today is a descendant too, and so is not our mother, but a sibling or cousin. In genealogical terms we are the same generation as today’s Britain. Getting this right is fundamental to our moving from colonial status to nationhood. My book summarises it by saying, ‘Shakespeare is a New Zealander – and an Australian and an American – Phillip Larkin is not’. It could have bracketed Blake with Shakespeare.

We might change the last line as I do, but there is no need to rewrite the last verse. We interpret the first verse of ‘Jerusalem’ in the way that Blake would have wanted us to. The ‘England’ of the hymn is not today’s England, but an ancestral one.

And did Jesus walk in Aotearoa? McCahon thought so. And if Jesus did, so did Shakespeare and Blake and a whole lot of others. Every time we walk through our land, with a quiet pride of being a New Zealander, we walk with the ancestors we honour and who still mean so much to us today.


(1) 1. W. Harmon (ed) (1990) The Classic Hundred: All-time Favorite Poems, New York, p.105

(2) Gordon H. Brown, Colin McCahhon: Artist, revised edition, Reed, Auckland, 1993.

(3) Peter Simpson, ‘McCahon in 1947-48′, Art New Zealand, Spring 2001.

The following was a footnote to a Listener column on 5 June 1999.


The painting “Storm Warning”, gifted to Victoria University of Wellington by the artist, Colin McCahon in 1981 and recently sold by them, paints the words:


the final age of this world
is to be a time of troubles.
men will love nothing but
money and self they will be
arrogant, boastful and abusive;
with no respect for parents
gratitude, no piety, no natural affection
they will be implacable in their hatreds.
Paul to Timothy

Perhaps it is understandable that the most pro-rogernomics of our universities privatised this prophetic work.

Great artists prophesy. Maurice Gee’s 1982 novel The Sole Survivor is about the grandchildren of George Plumb, a contemporary of the first Labour government. Duggie Plumb is an unprincipled thug; Raymond Sole an ineffectual liberal. Ian Wedde’s 1975 “Pathway to the Sea” was so insightful about development and the environment, I asked him if he revised it in the light of “Think Big”. He did not have to.