‘Jerusalem’ is now most likely to be heard at jubilee celebrations or Last Night of the Proms – but its author William Blake, born on this day in 1757, was a radical who raged against a world split between privilege and poverty.

English poet, painter and engraver William Blake (1757-1827). (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

In the past few years, we’ve become increasingly used to hearing William Blake’s poetry being used to sell cars or seeing his art being used to sell Dr Martens. What is perhaps his most famous piece of work, the stanzas beginning ‘And did those feet’ from the Preface to the epic illuminated book Milton a Poem, is more likely to be heard at Last Night of the Proms, cricket matches, or jubilee celebrations.

What is most surprising about this appropriation by royalty and the commercial establishment is that Blake publicly inveighed against ‘One King, one God, one Law’ and privately observed that ‘Every Body hates a King’, while denouncing in Milton the ‘ignorant Hirelings’ who demeaned art with their ‘expensive advertizing boasts’. George Orwell thought that there was more understanding of the nature of capitalism in the Song of Experience, ‘London’, than in most political writing, and throughout his life Blake repeatedly attacked a world which privileged the rich while subjecting the poor to war and degradation.

Blake was born during the Seven Years’ War, which has been described as perhaps the first global war, involving most European nations in conflict across the continents. His own political awakening, however, came during his years as an apprentice to the engraver James Basire. The American War of Independence served as a lightning rod for domestic discontent with the administrations of Lord North and George III at this time, and Blake was caught up in 1780’s Gordon Riots—anti-Catholic protests motivated by Lord George Gordon, head of the Protestant Association, which transformed into more violent assaults against institutions of property and repression in the capital. Newgate Prison was broken into, and a proclamation daubed on the walls that the inmates had been freed by the authority of ‘His Majesty, King Mob’.

The title page of America a Prophecy. (Wikimedia Commons)

Opposition to the Establishment, then, was something with which Blake was familiar during his teens, and there are echoes of rather conventional declamations against tyranny in his first collection, Poetical Sketches. As with many writers, artists, and thinkers of his generation, however, it was the events of the French Revolution that radicalised Blake. His first true biographer, Alexander Gilchrist, wrote that Blake had worn the red bonnet of liberty in support of the Revolution.

A great deal of his political education during this period came from his associations with the publisher Joseph Johnson. Johnson’s circle included Henry Fuseli, William Godwin, Thomas Paine, and Mary Wollstonecraft, hosting legendary soirées at which his guests would discuss a wide range of the political and social events of the day. The 1790s saw Johnson publish more political works, including distributing a pamphlet by Gilbert Wakefield that criticised an address by the Bishop of Llandaff that supported the privileges of the wealthy, for which he was imprisoned.

It was Johnson’s trial that led Blake to write privately that ‘To defend the Bible in this year 1798 would cost a man his life’. Johnson and Blake had a working relationship that spanned two decades, with Johnson regularly hiring Blake to furnish engravings for many of his authors—although he refused to publish Blake’s euphoric The French Revolution, just as he turned away Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man. Nonetheless, it was through his associations with figures such as Godwin, Paine, and—most of all—Wollstonecraft that Blake developed a more radical political vision.

Blake’s painting ‘Pity’, c.1795. (Wikimedia Commons)

In works such as America a Prophecy and Europe a Prophecy, Blake celebrated the events of the American and French revolutions, but the true originality of this emerging vision is evident in works like Visions of the Daughters of Albion and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In Visions, Blake is one of the first writers to enthusiastically take up Wollstonecraft’s call to vindicate the rights of women, attacking rape culture and writing some of his most powerful poetry through the voice of his character Oothoon, who refuses to accept the brutal status accorded her as a woman and a slave.

It’s in The Marriage, however, that Blake most completely turned the world upside down, declaring himself on the side of the devils and against angels and a vision of God that he increasingly associated with Urizen, the false creator of this world. Blake was an intensely religious writer, but these views were highly heretical: ‘All deities,’ The Marriage observed, ‘reside in the human breast’, the creations of poets and artists to challenge and transform the world.

By the end of the century, as Britain became mired ever more deeply in war with France, Blake’s clear and overt radicalism made London a dangerous place. It was with some relief, then, that his friends welcomed a new arrangement in 1800 that saw him and his wife, Catherine, leave London for the only time in their life, for the coastal village of Felpham in Sussex, where they would work with a new patron, William Hayley. Relations with Hayley soured, however, and their venture on the shores of the ocean ended in disaster.

Blake’s ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, c.1805. (Wikimedia Commons)

On 12 August 1803, Blake became involved in an argument with a soldier, John Scolfield, in which he was reported to have said ‘Damn the King’. Arrested and tried for sedition, Blake was found innocent, but the event scarred him and over the next decade he fell into increasing poverty. As he lamented in one of his personal poems: ‘O why was I born with a different Face / Why was I not born like this Envious Race?’

In his later works, Milton a Poem and Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, Blake’s art and writing becomes both increasingly beautiful and more obscure. Although there was a tendency to view this complexity as a withdrawal from the world, both religiously and politically, Blake’s vision remained intensely radical. In Jerusalem, Blake’s alter ego, Los, walks through London, witnessing everywhere the appalling effects of continuing war on the poor and downtrodden in the city:

He came down from Highgate thro Hackney & Holloway towards London
Till he came to old Stratford & thence to Stepney & the Isle
Of Leuthas Dogs, thence thro the narrows of the Rivers side
And saw every minute particular, the jewels of Albion, running down
The kennels of the streets & lanes as if they were abhorrd.

Blake’s continuing commitment to the transformation of Albion, his preferred name for Britain in his later works, is evident in his most famous—and often most misunderstood—poem, most commonly known as the hymn ‘Jerusalem’. Detached from its Preface, and later set to music by Hubert Parry to raise the morale of Britons during the First World War, Blake’s poem is an attack on the ‘Hirelings’ he sees in the camps, court, and universities who would if they could ‘for ever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War’. By 1916, a group of editors and writers had determined that a poem which criticised the fall of Albion into error and violence was instead a wholehearted celebration of England—but for Blake, building Jerusalem meant rejecting the newly emerging military-industrial complex that ground down the bodies and souls of ‘the jewels of Albion’ as fodder for their wars of colonialism.

Blake’s ‘The Dance of Albion (Day of Joy)’ c.1795. (Wikimedia Commons)

Singing ‘Jerusalem’ while waving the Union Jack may have become an all-too familiar image, especially after it became embedded in Last Night of the Proms. Even when Parry was composing his music, however, others took a different approach. The writer and social campaigner Upton Sinclair included the poem in his anthology Cry for Justice, while Clement Attlee quoted Blake’s words favourably in his early book The Social Worker. Building Jerusalem would become Attlee’s guiding principle after the Second World War, when a Labour administration would quite literally build a new nation through the establishment of the NHS and the welfare state.

From the perspective of John Scolfield, Blake was a traitor—and yet into the twenty-first century it is the poet rather than the soldier who has inspired generations of artists and writers, whether the anarchic bluster of Rooster Byron in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem or new settings of the poem by the singer Susheela Raman. 265 years after Blake’s birth, that radical vision remains more important than ever.

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