An invitation came to attend the celebration on 28th November of the birth of the poet and painter William Blake. Were it not taking place in a distant city on another island, I should have liked to attend.
Blake was one of the poets we studied at A-Level. His collection Songs of Innocence and Experience seemed an accurate apprehension of his world as it was described to us in our history lessons.
However, it was Jerusalem that inspired someone whose college was within a lunchtime’s stroll of Glastonbury. England’s green and pleasant land? It was obvious to someone who had grown up on the legends that the land Blake of Blake’s lyric was the countryside that surrounded us.
Once the lowlands had been under water and the hills on which many of us at the college lived had been islands. The encroachment of the sea had meant foreign visitors might reach places that would later become anonymous and landlocked.
The traders were said to include Joseph from Arimathea, who must have sailed from the Mediterranean and around the coasts of Spain, France and Cornwall, in order to reach the Bristol Channel and find his way to the Somerset wetlands.
In primary school days, the tales were not merely of Joseph arriving here, but of a young companion travelling with him, Jesus of Nazareth. William Blake would have found no shortage of material to add to his poem Jerusalem if he had lived in our village.
Glastonbury had the stories of Joseph. Stories of his bringing the cup from the Last Supper and cruets in which were drops of the blood and sweat of Jesus from the time of the crucifixion. There was the Glastonbury thorn which was said to have grown from the staff of Joseph, itself grown from the crown of thorns.
People of the area had believed in the prospect of creating a new land, a place that would have been a precursor of the vision of Blake. The radical groups from the English Civil War held a hope for a better world, a building of a new Jerusalem.
Cromwell’s overthrow of the English Establishment gave rise briefly to all sorts of radical Christian and democratic groups, the Levellers being the foremost. The flowering of hopes of democracy and a new society was brief. Cromwell’s Puritans created a society every bit as oppressive as that peopled by the English aristocracy.
Were Blake writing two centuries later, it is hard to imagine what his new vision might include.
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