National anthems can have curious pedigrees and go through twists and turns on their way to anthemic status. Francis Scott Key set “The Star-Spangled Banner” to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” an 18th-century English men’s club’s drinking song. “America (My Country ’Tis of Thee)” sets new lyrics to the British anthem “God Save the Queen,” and an earlier rewrite, “Rights of Woman,” published in 1793, was one of the first feminist anthems.
Britain’s other, unofficial anthem, Charles Hubert Parry’s “Jerusalem,” the iconic climax of the the BBC’s “Last Night of the Proms” concerts and of the film “Chariots of Fire,” has an even more convoluted history.
The song is a setting of William Blake’s poem “And did those feet in ancient time,” which after its publication in 1808 was read as a protest against the Napoleonic Wars and the socially disruptive industralization of England. Parry’s setting, introduced in 1916, was intended to promote British patriotism during World War I.
That was just the first inversion of Blake’s verses, the University of Lincoln’s Jason Whittaker writes in History Today. Parry “hated the jingoism” of the pro-war forces that commissioned his composition, and “granted copyright to the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies . . . and wrote to Millicent Fawcett in 1918 that he hoped it would become the ‘Women Voters’ hymn.’ Parry’s early biographer, Charles Graves, observed that ‘Jerusalem’ had been ‘suggested for one movement and claimed for another.’ ”
While British nationalists and imperialists laid claim to “Jerusalem,” so did the country’s burgeoning labor and social-welfare movement. By the 1950s, there was “a polarised meaning for the Blake-Parry hymn,” Whittaker writes. “As part of the ‘Labour Party Song Book’ it was a paean to the newly established welfare state – but, included in the Last Night of the Proms from 1953 onwards, it was more closely linked to a nostalgia for the British Empire.”
That divide lingers: “[T]he Blake-Parry hymn ceased to be a nostalgic irrelevance; instead of a sign of England’s dreaming, it was set to be the scene of mental fight in the culture wars over what Englishness means in the 21st century.”