Heavens on Earth

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   May 24, 2018

One idea that keeps cropping up in literature is the notion that our land – whichever land it happens to be – is at least in some way as holy as those far-off Biblical places we have been taught about since childhood. 

Here are two fine examples: First, we have the mystical William Blake, whose vision in the poem “Jerusalem” was that Jesus (the “Holy Lamb”) might personally have visited England. He asks a series of suggestive questions, such as:

And did Those Feet, in Ancient Time, walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the Holy Lamb of God in England’s pleasant pastures seen?

This leads to a glorious dream of England as the possible New Jerusalem. (Meanwhile, our original Holy Land remains the subject of unholy conflict.)

But Blake was writing at the beginning of the 19th century, and he could not help contrasting that magnificent hope with the actual scars he saw being inflicted by the “dark satanic mills” of the Industrial Revolution. 

Then, a century later, we have Francis Thompson, a forlorn vagrant living in London, conceiving that City, in his reverent poem “The Kingdom of God” as being almost literally linked with Heaven. Out of the depths of his own despair, he recalls the story in Genesis about the patriarch Jacob, who dreamed of a ladder stretching from Earth to Heaven, with “the angels of God ascending and descending on it.” And Thompson anchors his ladder to a familiar landmark, which has given its name to a whole district of Central London:  

But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry – and upon thy so sore loss,
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.

There have, of course, been many other inspirations concerning Earthly Paradise. To the Hobos (in the Burl Ives rendition), it constituted a “Big Rock Candy Mountain” with “cigarette trees, “lemonade springs,” and a “soda water fountain.”

But centuries earlier than all of these, in the year 1516, a book came out whose very title virtually created the genre of ideal earthly places. It was called UTOPIA (which in Greek means “No place”) and was written by Sir Thomas More, whom you may best know from various media versions of “A Man for All Seasons.” Scholars are still arguing about this book, which seems to be a mixture of genuine proposals for an improved society and satirical criticism of More’s own times.

But what’s most striking to me is the contrast between religious freedom, which he generously granted to the inhabitants of Utopia, and the actual fate of Sir Thomas More himself. More, who had risen to become Lord High Chancellor, one of the most powerful men in the Kingdom, was still such a straight-laced (dare I say bigoted?) Catholic that when his king, Henry VIII, broke with the Church of Rome, More refused to sanction the separation and was executed for his defiance, on a charge of treason. His last words, we are told, were “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”  

Many other writers since then have come up with their own versions of Utopia, which have often been described as island paradises, far to the west or far to the east of wherever contemporary reality might actually be situated. But the true historical irony is that most of us today are living lives with powers and privileges, which to our ancestors would virtually have qualified us as gods. The very fact that our every dwelling has its own internal access to running water would in itself have seemed miraculous not so long ago.

Yet even today – and perhaps, in some ways, even more so today – we cling to our own dreams of places where life is better. You can look up lists of places where the people are supposedly happier and other lists of places where the climates are supposedly the best in the world – and there is little or no correlation. In fact, the allegedly happiest country in the world is Norway – which has one of the most miserable climates. Not surprising that its chief cultural contributions have been the gloomy music of Grieg and the even gloomier plays of Ibsen.

Perhaps we should be glad that there are no real Heavens on Earth, so that, while we are striving here, “Heaven” can still have some real meaning. Or, as Robert Browning put it:

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp – Or what’s a Heaven for?


You might also be interested in...