“Jerusalem” by William Blake
The onset of the song “Jerusalem” dates back to the legend of man known as Joseph of Arimathea. Serious Biblical scholars would recognize this as being the person who took responsibility for burying Jesus after he was crucified.
And he is actually mentioned in all four of the New Testament Gospels, meaning that he was a historical figure. He is also present in some of the apocryphal Gospels. And it is those depictions upon which the lyrics pertaining to him are primarily based.
Now as far as the books of the Apocrypha go, you may sometimes hear of them being referred to as ‘non-canonical’. What that basically means is that whereas they are based on many of the same Biblical characters we’re all familiar with, the stories contained therein are considered by scholars and believers as being more akin to legends as opposed to actual fact.
So for instance, in the Apocrypha, the aforementioned Joseph is not simply depicted as one of Jesus’ rich, secret disciples, as with standard New Testament. Rather he is portrayed as being Jesus’s personal homey (as well as that of Pilate himself, just to note).
More specifically in terms of how he is alluded to in this song, the friendship between Jesus and Joseph of Arimathea was most pronounced during the former’s childhood. And it was during that time that the two of them, before Jesus actually began his ministry, according to the Apocrypha visited England (and to be more exact modern-day Glastonbury).
An exercise in Symbolism
Now we are not implying that William Blake actually believed this story. Rather he is embracing the overall symbolism of it. That would apparently be why the song opens with an inquiry. An inquiry into what? An inquiry concerning that matter as opposed to an assertion. And that question would be, “did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green?”
So again, the singer is not presenting the above-mentioned tale as hardcore fact. Rather he is entertaining the idea – the fiction if you will – that Jesus did once visit his homeland, England.
Or stated otherwise it is not as if Blake, when he penned this poem, was actually concerned with historical facts. Rather it is what such a visitation would symbolize, i.e. England itself being blessed by a personal visitation from Jesus.
And even more ideologically, Jesus apparently liked the place. And this is where the song gets more controversial, if one decides to view it in such a manner. How? Because the vocalist then goes on to postulate that Jerusalem itself may be found in England.
Now of course the actual Jerusalem, i.e. the world famous city found in Israel/Palestine, is many thousands of miles away from England. So what the vocalist is actually speaking to is the concept of, this time around let’s say God Himself really favoring England.
And the reason we have said such a statement may be controversial to some is because of course there are a number of people who don’t believe that. For example, the Jews stake claim to being the chosen people of God.
Thesis Sentiment of “Jerusalem”
And it is fundamentally such an idea that the vocalist is entertaining, that England is a highly-blessed nation. In fact we may even consider that the thesis sentiment of the song. And this is even though he presents that argument in more of an inquisitive and, shall we say humble manner.
That is to say that he is not stating such as a forthright declaration, nor is that the conclusion of the song. Or let’s argue that yes, the premise is based on the idea of England being blessed.
But in light of such, i.e. once receiving Jesus himself, it is now up to the people to actually build “Jerusalem”. Or put more simply, simply being blessed isn’t enough. For now they are tasked with actually making the country prosperous and righteous.
And concerning the latter, the vocalist does reference some “dark satanic mills” contained therein. Some believe this metaphor may point to the Church of England. However, a more accepted understanding is that he was criticizing the Industrial Revolution.
Indeed, the Industrial Revolution did have its visibly negative effects on England. This is even if in the long run scholars argue that the ends justify the means.
Or put otherwise, judging by the nature of this song, William Blake was obviously a religious person. And yes, such an individual would likely have issues with an economic system in which for instance children were dangerously exploited in the name of generating income.
So conclusively this song is perhaps more idyllic than it is actual, for lack of a better word to describe the latter sentiment. That is to say that the vocalist sees his homeland, England, as more of a Jerusalem – i.e. holy, blessed city – in the making.
The potential is there to be great. And this is not only due to the ‘pleasantness’ of the landmass but also theoretically because God, via Jesus, personally favors the land.
So the highly-symbolic, relatively-indecipherable third verse may actually be the most-important of all. For that is where the singer is actually challenging his countrymen to live up to this lofty standing and fashion England into a modern-day “Jerusalem”.
Composing of “Jerusalem”
The lyrics of this hymn actually date back to an early-19th century poem known as “And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time”. That piece was written by William Blake (1757-1827). Blake was a very-famous poet of the era who hailed from London.
And said poem serves as the preface to another, epic (i.e. book-length) poem Blake put together during the first decade of the 19th century. He gave it the title “Milton: A Poem in Two Books”. The aforementioned is a piece of fiction based on religious and mystical themes.
And to note Blake also penned another poem around that same time entitled “Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion”. However, that is not to be confused with the actual “Jerusalem”.
“And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time” became a hymn, i.e. Jerusalem, once the poem was set to music. And that was done by another musician born a generation or so after William Blake, whose name was Hubert Parry (1848-1918).
In fact as far as songs of this caliber go, i.e. those which are regarded highly enough to be considered as national anthems, almost invariably they are multi-generational efforts. What tends to happen with these classics is that different pieces are added or modified at various junctures in history.
For instance, “And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time” was never particularly popular until the days of World War I. That is when it was included in an anthology entitled “The Spirit of Man”. The said anthology was intended to keep the British people optimistic during that trying time in history.
In fact it was the editor of that work, Robert Bridges (1844-1930), who requested that the aforementioned Hubert Parry fashion Blake’s poem into a hymn. He was basically the first prominent person to really see the potential of the poem as being akin to a national anthem.
British Suffragists adopt “Jerusalem”
Then around the time World War I was coming to an end it was British Suffragists, i.e. those fighting for the right for women to vote, who adopted “Jerusalem” as their theme song.
In fact a related NGO known as the Women’s Institute once owned the copyright to “Jerusalem”. This was until it became a publicly-owned (i.e. public domain) song in 1968. And it was apparently the Suffragists who officially changed the name from “And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time” to “Jerusalem” circa 1918.
Did William Blake criticize the Church in “Jerusalem”?
Concerning the aforementioned theory that Blake may have been criticizing the Church of England with the aforementioned “dark satanic mills” line, that is because he was actually against said institution.
Or more specifically he was trained in its doctrine but did not actually conform to or believe in it. That is why, as great as he may have been, he was not buried in what is perhaps the most-renowned burial site in England, London’s Westminster Abbey. Instead he was laid to rest at another site called Bunhill Fields. Just to note, his parents were also buried there.
Still some actual religious institutions in England, as well as the monarchy and the BBC, etc., recognize “Jerusalem” as, shall we say, a canonical hymn.
However, perhaps as to be expected, the actual Church of England does not. But this apparently has nothing to do with the “dark satanic mills” line. Rather their argument is that it is not an actual prayer. And that is the primary reason they cannot be accepted as such.
More about the “Dark Satanic Mills”
It has also been put forth that the “dark satanic mills” phrase, as it reads on the surface, is an actual reference to Satan. So in that regard, it would be the devil who, symbolically, is operating the mill.
And what he would be grinding is human souls. So that particular allegory in particular reads like the type of terminology one would find in, say, the epistles of Paul. And if this is in fact what William Blake meant. So that means on top of recognizing England’s blessing, he was also aware of what were, in his opinion, evil forces lurking therein.
Widespread Usage of “Jerusalem”
The tune enjoys widespread usage in educational institutions in England and some of its former colonies. Some of these colonies include Canada, Oceania and the northeastern section of the United States known as New England.
Furthermore, it was actually used to open the 2012 Summer Olympics, which were held in London.
That ceremony also witnessed a rendition of what is considered England’s actual national anthem, “God Save the King/Queen“. However, despite being locally and globally recognized as such, “God Save the Queen” is not the official national anthem of the UK or even England for that matter. No song is.
But there have been debates in recent years for the nation to adopt one. Or more specifically, many English people actually consider “Jerusalem” as being more fitting to serve such a purpose. They feel it is a better national anthem than “God Save the Queen/King”.
And amongst those who felt so included King George V (1865-1936) himself. George V ruled the United Kingdom earlier in the 20th century.
“Jerusalem” to become England’s National Anthem?
Even as of the writing of this post (in early 2021), this is still an ongoing debate. “Jerusalem” is actually more popular in a patriotic capacity amongst the British public than “God Save the Queen”.
Or stated otherwise, it wouldn’t be overly surprising if “Jerusalem” one day replaces “God Save the Queen” as the UK’s de facto national anthem. Actually some institutions and events already have or are using it as the British national anthem.
Even More Interesting Facts!!!
And of course a tune of such ubiquitous usage has been found on a number of movies and television shows. Some of the most-recognizable names on the list being the following:
- “Four Weddings and a Funeral” (1994)
- “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” (1995)
- “Doctor Who” (2013)
Also interesting to note is that the title of the popular 1981 film “Chariots of Fire” was actually inspired by “Jerusalem”. It was inspired by the last line of the third verse of the song. Furthermore “Jerusalem” goes on to appear on the movie’s soundtrack.
“Jerusalem” was also notably covered by the English rock group Emerson, Lake & Palmer in 1973.
Blake wrote “Jerusalem” in a part of England known as Sussex. More specifically he did so in a village called Felpham, in a cottage he resided in for three years. And that particular dwelling has been preserved. It currently serves as a tourist attraction known as Blake’s Cottage.
In addition to establishing himself as a world-class poet, Blake was also one of the most prominent (artistic) painters of his day.