Saturday, 29 March 2014

'Jerusalem' and Contradiction

William Blake’s ‘And did those feet in ancient time’ was converted into a hymn as a patriotic morale-booster during the First World War; the third and fourth stanzas particularly are said to represent traditional nationalist virtues. Blake would be turning in his grave, I assure you.

The poem was originally part of the preface to Blake’s epic ‘Milton’, one of his Prophetic books; the epic was an appraisal of John Milton, the anti-establishment, nonconformist intellectual and poet. Based on the apocryphal story of Jesus’ supposed journeys to England, ‘And did those feet in ancient time’ reads thus:

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 & pleasant Land.

The sarcastic questions almost stare you in the face, do they not? Peter Porter, an Australian poet and researcher, put forward the proposition that, rather than being a reference to the Industrial Revolution, these “dark Satanic Mills” are in fact an allusion to the institution of the Church, and that the Mills themselves represent the “great churches”; at the time the Church held a doctrine of conformity to the social order that Blake opposed. However, Blake was unable to oppose the Church as openly as he would have liked, nor could he show his support for the French Revolution for fear of arrest or death. Stonehenge and other megaliths also feature in Blake’s poem ‘Milton’, and so we can assume that Blake is referring to the oppressive power of priesthood and the institutionalisation of religion. In fact, in Blake’s ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ he writes: “a system was formed, which some took advantage of and enslaved the vulgar… thus began priesthood.” The fact that our beloved hymn Jerusalem poses not only as a patriotic anthem, but also as an anthem for the Church, would make Blake shudder, considering he had big issues with organised religion.

Accompanying the poem ‘And did those feet in ancient time’ there was written the following quotation from Numbers, Chapter 11: “Would to God that all the Lord’s people were prophets.” Blake was not referring to the prophets who tell of impending doom or relate the word of God, but rather the prophets who speak out about oppression and tell truth about what they see and perceive. Christopher Rowland, a Professor of Theology at Oxford University, writes:

“Blake wanted to stir people from their intellectual slumbers, and the daily grind of their toil, to see that they were captivated in the grip of a culture which kept them thinking in ways which served the interests of the powerful.”

Blake was promoting an anti-patriotic, individualist movement; he particularly hoped that people would unite in support of the French Revolution. Blake was such a Nonconformist and maverick that he even went so far as to call himself a ‘liberty boy’. His poem ‘The Garden of Love’ depicts a church invading his “Garden of Love”, and he writes, provocatively: “Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds, / And binding with briars, my joys and desires.” His anti-authoritarian stance does suggest that his magnificent poem has long been misunderstood. To claim that the hymn is a nationalist anthem would be utterly farcical; it seems a mistake has been made that cannot be undone.

Despite popular opinion, the poem is not calling people to build a great country, and ‘make England great again’, but it is in fact a critique of the society in which Blake lived. His poem ‘London’ tells how capitalism has ruined England, and depicts the bleak and wretched lives of the poor. Blake had quite radical sympathies for those living in poverty; ‘And did those feet in ancient time’ was in fact calling for people to show compassion, to fight for equality and against the establishment, and thus build a free, equal state.

Robert Bridges, who turned the poem into a hymn, wasn’t the only one who misinterpreted its meaning; the BBC embarrassingly aired a TV Programme called Jerusalem: An Anthem for England, when indeed it is almost the opposite of that. Moreover, public schools throughout the country, including Oundle, have taken to singing it for good-luck before important sports fixtures, no doubt as a nod to traditional and nationalist values. Given Blake’s thinking when he wrote the poem, it is surprising that so many people have been taken in and missed the great irony of “Jerusalem”. Such misunderstood verse is, in my mind, only likely to invite bad luck.


  1. A fascinating post, Tom. I always wondered about Jerusalem and how it has been misinterpreted but didn't know the details. I wonder what would happen if you challenged it being sung in school?

  2. I sent it to the school magazine (they like a bit of controversy!) but since not all of the ideas were mine and I used other sources on the internet, they refused to publish it! But, oh well! I think it's great that we sing it, and really enjoy it - just think that people should understand its meaning!

  3. The poem can also be interpreted as having a proto-environmentalist message - scouring the "dark satanic mills" of industry from England's "green and pleasant land" and all that.