Did Jesus go to Glastonbury?
Not for the music festival, but to the Roman Era tin mines. I have a wonderful little pamphlet by the Revd C.C. Dobson, M.A. suggesting “really maybe!” To quote Dobson directly:
It is probable that the critic will dissect the whole story thus discovered, and will find the authority or separate portion of it to be weak and insufficient. Probably most will admit, however, that the whole thing hangs together and each portion is a link which connects the other into a consecutive chain. Negatively, too probably most will admit that no adequate reason exists why it might not be true.
Well, no. There are several reasons to think it might not be true. Here is one: the legends telling of Jesus being in Glastonbury are not nearly ancient enough, at best sixth century if you read cryptic passages in the light that Jesus might have been at Glastonbury.
Sadly, the answer is almost surely that Jesus did not go to Glastonbury, but if not old compared to Roman times (when Jesus lived in the flesh), the legend is very old in terms of British history and has inspired much story telling. If you want to find the Holy Grail, then Glastonbury is a place to go, since legend, not the musician named John, but a folktale, says that Joseph of Arimathea brought the cup of Christ to Glastonbury after Jesus’ death.
Almost surely not. Still if you are English, or have English heritage (as I do) or just love England, then the idea is lovely. An idea does not have to be true to inspire great beauty or art. Shakespeare could turn the fairy stories of old England into Midsummer Night’s Dream. Jesus in England, Joseph and the Glastonbury thorn, the Grail, and Arthur, once and future King, are all powerful myths.
The half-mad, all-genius William Blake wrote a moving poem inspired by the idea:
And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands 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 Englands green & pleasant Land.
I first heard this fragment of Blake’s writing as a haunting hymn and was staggered by the combination of beauty, passion, and desire to create a better city. I fortunately missed the Python’s comic version until the beauty had a chance to work on me!The hymn based on the poem brought me to William Blake. Imagine my shock in discovering the poem from the hymn “Jerusalem” is not in his very long poem Jerusalem, but in a two parter poem sort-of-about Milton! Blake’s fragment makes sense, the poem in which it is embedded loses literal meaning.
I discovered, however, that no poem of Blake ever lost meaning. They all point to an experience of something other: either infernal or Divine. William Blake points outside of matter and energy in mindless motion, but not to Ideas, firm and hard, as did Plato, but to the human ability to know and point at what we mean without the ability (always) to define that Something with precision. Blake was pointing at the Other.
Blake made poetry out of the beauty of English words, ancient legends, sounds he liked, and profound ideas stirred together. The whole is often less than any one of the parts: meaning is clear in one place and lost over pages of poetry, the mystification complete. Blake is the poet of mystery: he points to something that might be visionary. Often over the centuries since he wrote, readers have found meaning, not philosophy, but the meaning that comes when beauty or the absence of beauty shows there is something. Where? There!
The fragment of Milton that is found in the hymn is a tiny part of a two part poem ostensibly written “to justify the ways of God to Men.” The fragment is clear, but the greater poem is a mysterious, obscure-by-choice whole. I think the greater poem points there to that and in the experience of our looking where the poet is pointing, Blake thinks we will experience the justification of the God.
This much is true, the haunting beauty of the possibility of Jesus in England that would inspire a Jerusalem and knock down dark Satanic mills points to a reality that could be, even should be. Blake is motivating our hearts with a beautiful legend and for his purposes it does not matter at all if the story is historical.
Dobson has missed the meaning of the poem by looking for Newtonian evidence, the very thing Blake would have despised.
Of course, for some kinds of decisions, what happened historically matters and is decisive. Blake is noting that inspiration that can create beauty in real time can start ink a different place. Legend can inspire reality.
God help me, a sinner.