My two favorite hymns are To Be a Pilgrim and Jerusalem. They were the ones I sang with the most joy during morning assembly in my school years.
It was only later that I discovered that they’d been written by poets: “Jerusalem” by William Blake, and “To Be a Pilgrim by John Bunyan.” I must’ve identified with them unconsciously even while being propagandized in the name of the Christian religion. Blake and Bunyan were radical Christians: Christians with a mind and a will of their own. They weren’t obedient to any church but their own. They disobeyed the ordinances of the establishment to ally themselves with the dissenting sects: Bunyan with the Baptist Church (maybe, it’s not clear); Blake with the Swedenborgian New Church, although Blake was too much of a radical to stay long in any institution not created out of his own imagination. Blake dissented even against the Dissenters.
“Jerusalem” is a cry of rebellion from the heart of London radicalism. It first appears in the Preface to Milton, a Poem in Two Books, one of Blake’s illuminated works. These books weren’t just written. They were scribed in molten wax using backwards writing on copper plate (Blake was as proficient writing backwards as writing forwards) interspersed with line drawings and full-page images. There are drawings between the lines and words that turn into pictures, and tiny, elaborate sketches in the margins. After this the plates were dunked in an acid bath, which left the waxed lines upraised, and then inked and pressed into paper to make an outline; finally they were hand-painted in watercolor to make a unique print. No two are alike. Blake did most of the work himself, though his wife Catherine also did some of the water coloring. There are 51 such plates in Milton. It took him from 1804 to 1821 to complete.
The Preface is divided into two. The first part is a bit of a rant. It’s dismissive of Classical writers such as Homer and Ovid, “which all men ought to contemn” while it praises “the Sublime of the Bible.” It talks about an impending New Age (so there was talk of a “New Age” even back then). After this it becomes a furious rallying cry:
Rouse up, O Young Men of the New Age! Set your foreheads against the ignorant hirelings! For we have hirelings in the Camp, the Court, and the University, who would, if they could, for ever depress mental, and prolong corporeal war. Painters! on you I call. Sculptors! Architects! suffer not the fashionable fools to depress your powers by the prices they pretend to give for contemptible works, or the expensive advertising boasts that they make of such works: believe Christ and His Apostles that there is a class of men whose whole delight is in destroying. We do not want either Greek or Roman models if we are but just and true to our own Imaginations, those Worlds of Eternity in which we shall live for ever, in Jesus our Lord.
After this there follows the famous hymn:
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!
That’s the version as it appears in the original text, using Blake’s punctuation. You’ll notice that there are no question marks. These are statements. My friend Dave pointed this out to me. “And did those feet” is a Biblical anachronism meaning, “and those feet did.”
This is made clear in the following stanza, which appears in Blake’s text as follows:
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among those dark Satanic Mills?
There are question marks in this. Blake’s asking no questions in the first stanza, while he is in the second. In the first he’s making an assertion. Those feet did, in ancient times, walk upon England’s mountain’s green. It’s probably the most famous opening line to a poem ever written, and the most misunderstood. The word “And” suggests that it’s a follow-up to something said before. What was said before is contained in the previous passage: “Rouse up, O Young Men of the New Age! Set your foreheads against the ignorant hirelings!”
This is fighting talk, as is made clear by the next two stanzas:
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.
Finally the page is rounded off by a quotation from the Bible:
Would to God that all the Lord’s people were Prophets. Numbers 11:29
The hymn is very patriotic-sounding when taken out of context. This is why it can be sung with such joyous bravado at the Tory Party conference, and during the last night of the Proms, while the crowds are waving their Union Jack flags and wearing their Union Jack hats; but I wonder, if they knew the context, would they still be so enamored of it? If they knew that its author was a lifelong republican and that he’d been taken to court for sedition for saying that he “damned the King of England.” That he was known to have sported the “Liberty Cap” through the streets of London, the headgear favored by the revolutionaries during the French revolution. That the poem as a whole is an evocation of the poet John Milton, who’d been one of the revolutionaries who’d taken the head off King Charles I back in the 17th century.
The lines argue for “mental fight” but against “corporeal fight.” The poem is fiercely pacifist. The proper place for an artist’s struggle is in the field of ideas, not the field of war. This is why he dismisses the Greek and Roman writers. They’re “slaves of the sword,” he says. It’s written in praise of the divine countenance shining forth, and against “those dark Satanic Mills.” It’s not clear what he means by this last phrase. It could be interpreted to mean cotton mills, which even then were springing up in Lancashire and the North, creating the first mass-production factories in the world, and the first proletarians: but there were no cotton mills in London at the time, and Blake hardly ever set foot outside his home city, except for a brief sojourn in Felpham, West Sussex, between 1800 and 1803. There were no cotton mills here either, although it was in this period that he probably wrote the words to what would eventually become the de facto English national anthem.
Nevertheless Blake would’ve seen mills of various kinds: paper mills and flour mills. The term had already acquired the status of a metaphor. Mills grind things out. So you have the intellectual mills of Oxford and Cambridge grinding out scholars of a certain ilk: the “hirelings” of “the Camp, the Court and the University,” to use Blake’s dismissive phrase. Or the mills of the art establishment, grinding out inferior art, while Blake, the genius, struggles to make a living with his intense, fiery, difficult work.
The Biblical quote makes it clear what he means: “Would to God that all the Lord’s people were Prophets.” He’s calling on the people to rise up and become prophets against the system of Empire that oppresses them. Blake’s already a prophet in his own right. That’s why he wrote his prophetic books. He wants the world to see what he sees and to join him “in mental fight.” He’s already on the front line in the battle for eternity, already wielding his magical weapons: his bow of burning gold, his arrows of desire, his spear that parts the clouds, while riding on his fiery chariot. He’s already set about the great work of building Jerusalem, that ideal city of God, while calling upon the rest of us to join him in his labors.
This is fabulous language. It stirs the heart of every English person, man and woman, Tory and Socialist alike. The women of the Women’s Institute sing it. It was bequeathed to the women’s movement by Hubert Parry, the composer, and sung by massed women at the Albert Hall at a suffrage rally in 1918. In this Parry was following in the footsteps of his progenitor, Blake, who was also a supporter of women’s rights, as he made clear in The Visions of the Daughter of Albion.
Parry had written the song “to brace the spirit of the nation” in the depths of World War I. It’s not, strictly speaking, a hymn. The definition of a hymn is a song sung in praise of God, and there’s not really much praising in “Jerusalem.” Blake asks questions and he makes statements, he ties his rabble-rousing anthem to a spiritual cause, but God’s never mentioned by name, only suggested. Whose feet are they? Whose “countenance divine”? We can guess that he means Jesus, in which case, he’s calling upon a myth, not a reality. The ancient tale was that Joseph of Arimathea, Jesus’ uncle, had come to Britain and built the first church at Glastonbury: the idea that he might’ve brought his nephew here was a more recent addition to the story.
Myth was Blake’s playground. When he wasn’t calling upon ancient traditions, he was creating his own world-spanning mythos. It’s this that makes reading Blake so difficult. We have to disentangle the complexity of his mythic Albion, with its cast of allegorical characters who parade through London even as Blake takes his daily walk: Urizen, Los, Enitharmon, the Giant Albion, Orc and all the rest. It’s hard to keep track on what they’re supposed to represent. But that they’re giant characters who stalk through history as well as through the expanded mind of their creator shouldn’t be doubted. Blake was nothing if not grand in his conception.
The joy of “Jerusalem” is that everybody loves it, mostly without really understanding what it means. I remember hearing a carriage full of young men and women roaring it out on the overground train going to Eltham, a working-class part of South London, back in the 1990s. Eltham was where Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager, was murdered by racist thugs in 1993. There was a strong racist element in the area at the time, now thankfully disappeared. No doubt the people chanting it with such happy abandon that evening thought they were singing a patriotic hymn, rather than the battle cry for the spirit of eternity that Blake had envisioned.
In Blake’s time all of these housing estates would’ve been fields. He probably tramped his way along lanes that once meandered near where this railway track now runs. He was a great walker. If he could’ve been transported into the future he might have been surprised at the speed we were travelling, probably more so at hearing his own words sung by young, working-class Londoners on their way home from the pub, nearly two centuries after he had composed them. He always thought that his work had a significance beyond his time, even while the world was ignoring him.
What would he have made of our world? Of the mills and the factories, the shopping malls and car parks, the great swathes of motorway cutting through the city? Of the cars clogging its streets and the Tube trains racing through tunnels in the earth? I’ve no doubt that he would’ve still seen the form of his giant characters inscribed upon the landscape. He would’ve understood these innovations as the work of the same gigantic forces that had carved out the psychic topography of England in his own day.
—Follow Chris Stone on Twitter: @ChrisJamesStone