The history of the classic hymn ‘Jerusalem’ and its literary origins
‘Jerusalem’ is one of the most famous hymns around, a sort of alternative national anthem for England (and some, especially those of a republican persuasion, prefer it to ‘God Save the Queen’). But as with most things which we know well, the hymn called ‘Jerusalem’ is surrounded by misconceptions, legend, and half-truths. We intend, in this post, to clear away some of the mystery in which Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ is abundantly swathed.
Let’s start with that title: Blake (1757-1827) didn’t call it ‘Jerusalem’, and instead the famous words that form the lyrics of the hymn are merely one part of a longer poem, a poem which Blake called Milton (in reference, of course, to the seventeenth-century poet who, Blake once opined in reference to Milton’s masterpiece Paradise Lost, was ‘of the Devil’s party without knowing it’). Or, to give the poem its full title, Milton a Poem (Blake apparently wasn’t keen on colons). ‘Jerusalem’ wasn’t originally written as a hymn, then, but as a poem, or rather part of a poem.
Hubert Parry wrote the music for the patriotic hymn known as ‘Jerusalem’ in 1916, during the First World War. The theme has since become the anthem for the Women’s Institute, or WI, and as a result of this (and their penchant for jam-making) the phrase ‘Jam and Jerusalem’ is sometimes used jocularly to refer to the WI.
The phrase ‘dark Satanic Mills’ originated in the poem, and the prevailing interpretation is that this phrase refers to the Industrial Revolution (the mills of industry); however, some scholars have put forward the view that the ‘dark Satanic Mills’ refer to churches rather than literal mills, and to the Church of England in particular (of which Blake was not exactly a fan – and no, that’s not meant to be a windmill pun).
The literary critic William Empson, known for his unorthodox interpretations of literary works, put forward the reading, in his letters, that the poem refers not to Jesus but to Pythagoras – the Greek philosopher who, legend has it, had visited England and worked with the Druids (so the ‘feet in ancient time’ of that first line refer to him rather than to Christ). This tallies with the references to Stonehenge and other sites of religious ritual found elsewhere in the poem Milton of which ‘Jerusalem’ forms a small part; the poem is a critique of the priesthood in general. Empson’s reading has not found much support, however.
As well as those ‘dark satanic mills’, another phrase the poem has bequeathed to us is ‘Chariot of fire’, which of course gave the similarly patriotic 1981 film Chariots of Fire its name. The hymn version of Blake’s poem is performed in the film.
The most famous phrase to come from the poem, however, is from the last line, which refers to ‘Englands green and pleasant land’ (we have elided the apostrophe, as Blake’s original poem did – what did he have against punctuation?). This goes some way towards explaining the poem’s popularity as an unofficial national anthem: it seems to sum up England in a wonderfully concise and vivid phrase.
If you enjoyed these facts about the hymn ‘Jerusalem’, then check out these five great paintings of books by William Blake.
Image: Watercolour portrait of William Blake by Thomas Phillips, 1807; Wikimedia Commons.