Mechanisms: The Unknown Soldier and the New Jerusalem

Continuing the appraisal of the role of faith in the previous section, I would now like to turn to the main subject whom the neurosis of the homely was focused on: the returned soldier. This figure, to whom a debt was seen to be owed, seems to overlap with notions of the ‘Unknown Warrior’, the ‘Anonymous Client’ and the mythical Christ of heroic sacrifice. Similarly, his idea of the homely seems to have come to rest on a paradoxical view of the new Jerusalem

The trajectory of the nexus of faith and the returned soldier coming home can be traced in the story of the quintessentially English hymn Jerusalem. The tune was commissioned by the poet laureate Robert Bridges in 1916 as a setting for Blake’s short poem, from the preface to his epic Milton, which had just been republished in a wartime anthology. It was first performed as part of the “Fight for Right” campaign in the Queen’s Hall, Portland Place, in the same year, as a rallying call to the British people when the war first began to look like it might have no end. Its words bear close scrutiny.

And did those feet in ancient time
walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
on England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

Jerusalem refers at the conscious, literal level, to the heavenly city on earth. In the generally accepted view of the hymn, Parry’s anthem is a call to arms motivated by the hope of building a paradisal city of the future. But Jerusalem is also the city of Golgotha, the place of sacrifice. So Jerusalem can have a double meaning, and its conventional interpretation can be turned on its head. The city it speaks of can be imagined as if it were a photographic negative; not a shining city upon a dark ground of Satanic mills, but a dark, Satanic city set down in a green and pleasant land. A city of trenches and no-man’s-land out of place in a paradisal Albion.

It is here that the Christ-figure of the poem, who once tread on England’s soil according to the Glastonbury legend, becomes conflated with the sacrificial soldier. The Christ of the Passion and of Glastonbury legend blends with the sacrificial dead of Passchendaele. In death, both will only return to England’s green and pleasant land, when the place of their crucifixion has been repatriated. According to this reading, the mental fight of which the singer sings is now not only that of Britons struggling to find the will to fight on, but the struggle involved in finding the will to share the experience afterwards, the struggle to bring Golgotha home.

Popular from the start, the song’s post-war history became assured with the orchestration by Edward Elgar for the Leeds Festival of 1922. King George V said he preferred it to the national anthem. It became the unofficial anthem of the Women’s Institute during the 1920s (note also that the tradition of singing Abide With Me at the FA Cup Final also began in 1927). As actively Christian women they will have known of the double meaning of the word “Jerusalem”. Having won the literal fight, it seems beyond reason, but within the capability of the unconscious, for their minds to have been rehearsing what they would have to do to pay homage to their lost boys and relieve themselves of the pull of the past.

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor let my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built the new Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

Exchange the word “pen” for “sword” and the job of the architect becomes clear. In 1945, Clement Attlee, a survivor of the trenches, used the song’s words as a slogan for the 1945 general election campaign: he said Labour would build “a new Jerusalem”. It was the beginning of the programme that ended with the comprehensive redevelopments of the late-1950s and 1960s.