Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Blake's "And did those Feet in Ancient Time" and the Silent Years of Christ

 “And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green”  -Blake, Preface to Milton

HANOI, OLD QUARTER,  December 25, 2012:
Second floor cafe, little table in the corner beside the open window bundled in a scarf overlooking the rush of motor scooters around Hoan Kien Lake.  My daughters are splitting a slice of decadent chocolate pie with tiny silver forks on a white porcelain plate.  It's Christmas, and we are a million miles from home.
  “And was the holy Lamb of God on England's pleasant pastures seen”  -Blake, Preface to Milton

A few months back I was in England walking through fields and napping behind broken stones, castles in candlelight and abbeys with creaking wood floors.  One afternoon in London, (I didn't write about it on this blog) I passed by a classical music Prom put on by the BBC outside the Royal Albert Hall in which a number of wonderful classical pieces were performed... including a rousing Pomp and Circumstance March, and emotional singing of God Save the Queen (I still love the Brits!), and a sweet version of Auld Lang Syne in which everyone locked arms to sing.
  “And did the Countenance Divine shine forth upon our clouded hills?”  -Blake, Preface to Milton

But for me, standing on the side watching, the singing of the anthem, Jerusalem, written by Sir Hubert Parry, was incredibly emotional.
 “And was Jerusalem builded here among  these dark Satanic Mills?”  -Blake, Preface to Milton

I knew the poem, penned by William Blake in his preface to the epic Milton a Poem, written back in the early 19th century, but I had no idea it was put to music.  Standing there, hearing thousands of voices ringing out this melody, I was completely overwhelmed.  How did all these people know this little obscure poem that I cherished, this little boy growing up in Oregon in seemingly absolute isolation with often only an anthology of English poetry on his mother's library shelf to keep me company?  And furthermore, how did they all know to sing it together in one national voice? 
 “Bring me my Bow of burning gold.  Bring me my Arrows of desire”  -Blake, Preface to Milton

Many hours later, wandering the streets of London looking at faces and kicking curbs, I tried to remember the Blake poem exactly entitled, "And did those feet in ancient time."  It's a narrative really, an apocryphal story about the young Jesus, who with his uncle Joseph of Arimathea, a tin merchant, travel across Europe to what is now England to visit Glastonbury. 
  “Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!  Bring me my Chariot of fire!”  -Blake, Preface to Milton

Of course, there's no evidence of this in The Bible.  The legend comes from the lost years (or Silent Years) of Christ, a period in his life between about the age of twelve to thirty where records of his comings and goings have yet to be found.  The poem ponders the marvel of having a Second Coming in England... amid the chaos and destruction of the Industrial Revolution. 
  “I will not cease from Mental Fight, nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand”  -Blake, Preface to Milton

But it's this silence that gets me, wandering London with the roar of Jerusalem still in my ears... why don't we sing more?  Particularly, why don't Americans sing more?  We're so divided.  Politically. Ideologically.  Geographically.  Americans don't even know our National Songs, do we?  We lip sync our National Anthem because if our artists mess up their album sales will drop... how sad is that?  Sadder still, who knows the third verse of America the Beautiful?  What if Jon Stewart or Bill O'Reilly stopped walking party lines and just led us in song instead?  Okay... Hartenstein, you're getting ahead of yourself... you sound like a hippy dippy talking... Next thing you're going to say is Jesus backpacked Europe as a teenager with his cool uncle, huh?
“Till we have built Jerusalem, in England’s green and pleasant land”  -Blake, Preface to Milton

I don't know... but it's Christmas, and I'm far from home and no one is singing... so I take my girls out to Hoan Kien Lake, we walk past the Red Bridge Pagoda... and we sing.  Silent Night and The First Noel, Little Town of Bethlehem and It Came Upon a Midnight Clear... Yeah, we got some funny looks... but I didn't care.  I don't want to be silent in the world.  Do you?

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