The hymn Jerusalem was written by British composer Hubert H. Parry in 1916. The song uses the poem And Did Those Feet In Ancient Time by poet William Blake. Written by Blake as a preface to his work Milton a Poem in 1804 it was included in a patriotic anthology of verse titled The Spirit of Man and edited by Robert Bridges in 1916. The collection was supposed to boost morale among the British army in World War I who had been struck by a vast amount of casualties by that time. Bridges asked Parry to set „suitable, simple music to Blake’s stanzas – music that an audience could take up and join in“1, because he believed the text to have the ability to „brace the spirit of the nation to accept with cheerfulness all the sacrifices necessary to bring the war to a satisfactory conclusion“2. Another well-known British composer, Sir Edward Elgar, arranged the orchestration of Parry’s music which famously led King George V to state that he preferred Jerusalem over the de facto national anthem God Save the King upon hearing it for the first time. Today it is used by many English sports teams such as Cricket, Women’s Lacrosse and Football as national anthem at their international matches. It is also sung as an office or recessional hymn in church on St. George’s Day and Jerusalem Sunday.
This exuberant use of Blake’s poetry for nationalistic or religious purposes seems out of place with the meaning Blake is believed to have intended for Milton a Poem. Milton describes the journey of John Milton descending from Heaven to erase his spiritual errors. It is a thought-provoking text about imagination and perception and the role church should play in the formation of ethics.
Especially the preface to Milton that includes And Did Those Feet In Ancient Time is inquisitive if not questioning the Book of Revelation which mentions a Second Coming of Jesus to (what is now) England and building a new city of Jerusalem. “Jerusalem” is used by the Anglican Church as a metaphor for Heaven or a peaceful, sacred place. The first two verses of Blake’s poem clearly contain four questions that not only examine and question the actual event of Jesus’ visit to England but also its meaning if it was to have occurred. This is best exemplified by Blake’s use of “these dark Satanic Mills” which can be interpreted as a symbol for the industrial revolution of England and the repressive ideology of both the state and the church at that time. Ultimately Blake is asking how it is possible for people to believe that a country with an overbearing government, an enslaving economy and a repressive church could harbor Heaven on Earth. In support of the British war effort however the song was meant to be understood by the public as a reminder of the achievements or the “Jerusalem” of British society and the Church that had to be protected in this war.
While during William Blake’s lifetime the church and the state were essentially the same institution this was certainly not the case anymore in the 20th century. So while Blake originally is believed to have written about changing England itself into a better place, not avoiding intellectual challenges and finally rising to become a “green and pleasant land” with the help and guidance of God (the “Chariot of fire” is a symbol from 2 Kings 2:11 that allows prophet Elijah to ascend into Heaven), the text could also very well be understood as a call to the arms in order to defend the “Jerusalem” Jesus had built in England. This is probably the reason this poem was selected to appear in the war anthology to rebuilt soldiers’ confidence and trust in the English leadership. Oxford University Theology expert Christopher Rowland says: “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.”3 In that sense Blake was utilized by Bridges for a cause that Blake himself would probably not have supported: War. In fact, also Hubert H. Parry formally withdrew his support of the organization Fight For Right, to which Robert Bridges belonged, and also of their use of his song in 1917.
Another third significant meaning was given to Blake when the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) asked Parry’s permission to perform Jerusalem at a Suffrage Demonstration Concert in 1918 and make it the Women Voters’ Hymn. Parry was happy to arrange the piece for that purpose and in light of the interpretations of William Blake’s poem, I feel that this would also have been a cause that Blake himself had supported fighting for a less repressive culture and a greener and more pleasant England.
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s 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
1 C.L. Graves, Hubert Parry, Macmillan 1926, p. 92