Dr Oliver Tearle’s reading of Blake’s classic poem
‘Jerusalem’ is one of the most famous hymns around, a sort of alternative national anthem for England. Yet the poem on which Hubert Parry based his hymn, although commonly referred to as ‘William Blake’s “Jerusalem”’, is actually from a much larger poetic work titled Milton a Poem and was largely ignored when it was published in 1804.
It became well-known when it was set to music by Parry during the First World War (curiously, it was Robert Bridges, the Poet Laureate and the one who got Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poems into print, who suggested the idea to Parry). In this post, we’re going to delve deeper into the poem we know as ‘Jerusalem’, focusing on William Blake’s use of language.
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.
Blake (1757-1827) wrote many famous short poems, among them ‘London’, ‘The Tyger’, and ‘A Poison Tree’ (to name just three of many). But none is quite so familiar to us as ‘Jerusalem’. Yet have we, in fact, been misreading it all this time? Is the poem as patriotic as it seems?
Before we go any further, a brief summary of ‘Jerusalem’ (for so it will be easiest to speak of it, even though Blake never called it that). We can divide the four stanzas of ‘Jerusalem’ up into two halves: the first two stanzas ask a series of questions, and the final two stanzas describe a ‘call to arms’, an attempt to ‘build Jerusalem’ among the ‘green and pleasant land’ of England.
The questions asked in the first two stanzas refer, of course, to Jesus Christ and the idea that he may have travelled to England with Joseph of Arimathea. Did Jesus – known also as Agnus Dei, the ‘holy Lamb of God’ – travel to England, and did he build a Holy Land – a Jerusalem – among this English landscape, which is now (in Blake’s time) marked by the ‘dark satanic mills’ found across the countryside?
From the interrogative, or questioning, mood we shift to the imperative (a series of commands) in the third stanza. It’s as though Blake is girding himself for war. In the final stanza he says he will not cease fighting until he and his comrades have ‘built Jerusalem’ here in England.
What should we make of this? It’s hard to say. Is the poem the patriotic paean to England – its landscape, its Christian foundations, its courage and indomitable spirit? Well, perhaps not.
After all, the finest phrase in the poem, ‘dark Satanic Mills’, tells a different, less rosy story. It’s a nod to a key context for Blake’s poetry – indeed, much Romantic poetry – namely, the Industrial Revolution. Those dark satanic mills, as explained here, are the mills of industry; Blake may have been specifically thinking of the Albion Flour Mills near his home.
Or does it? ‘Mills’ here may be metaphorical. An alternative interpretation is that the ‘dark Satanic Mills’ refer to churches rather than literal mills, and to institutional religion in particular (of which Blake was not exactly a fan – and no, that’s not meant to be a windmill pun). Elsewhere in his poetry, Blake certainly uses mills as a metaphor for the Church of England. There would be a delicious irony, after all, in describing churches of all places as satanic mills.
What’s more, far from being intended as the patriotic hymn now sung at royal weddings and WI meetings, Blake may have been poking fun at the excessive nationalism of the English during the Napoleonic Wars. Here the reference to fighting in the second half of the poem makes sense: the English were at war with the French, and it appears that Blake strongly detested the nationalist sentiment that was rife in England at the time. (It’s worth remembering here that after the French Revolution, France had become a republic founded on reason rather than religion; the coupling of violent English patriotism with a keenly felt Christian belief was perhaps designed to emphasise what set the English apart from their enemies.)
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’. 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.
Yet it may all have been intended ironically. Have we all been analysing and interpreting ‘Jerusalem’ at face value, but when we take into account William Blake’s views of orthodox Christianity and excessive patriotism, is the poem, in fact, scathing satire?
About William Blake
William Blake (1757-1827) is one of the key English poets of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He is sometimes grouped with the Romantics, such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, although much of his work stands apart from them and he worked separately from the Lake Poets.
Blake’s key themes are religion, poverty and the poor, and the plight of the most downtrodden or oppressed within society. He is not a ‘nature’ poet in the same way that his fellow Romantics are: he seldom writes with the countryside in mind as his principal theme, but draws on, for instance, the rich symbolism of the rose and the worm to create a poem that is symbolically suggestive and clearly about other things (sin, religion, shame, cruelty, evil).
In form and language, Blake’s poetry can appear deceptively simple. He is fond of the quatrain form and short lines (usually tetrameter, i.e., containing four ‘feet’). But his imagery and symbolism are often dense and complex, requiring deeper analysis to penetrate and unravel their manifold meanings.
Continue exploring Blake’s work with our analysis of his poem ‘A Poison Tree’ and our discussion of Blake’s ‘London’. If you’re looking for a good edition of Blake’s work, we recommend Selected Poetry (Oxford World’s Classics).
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Watercolour portrait of William Blake by Thomas Phillips, 1807; Wikimedia Commons.
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Satire? You’re probably right but I guess we’ll all carry on singing and enjoying it!
Reblogged this on Writing, events, competitions and the occasional personal musing and commented:
Food for thought, but despite the arguments for ulterior lyrical meanings it doesn’t diminish my admiration for these wonderful words.