Comparing times gone by to the present often yields a sense of nostalgia and sadness in thinkers. A sense of yearning for a more simplistic time is not an uncommon desire at all, and is something that is commonly reflected in various kinds of art today. The fact that we, in the present day, to experience such nostalgic reflections, raises a question of what that yearning must have been like at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, when William Blake wrote his short poem, And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time, sometimes called “The New Jerusalem” (For context, the changes brought in by the Industrial Revolution for human society are often compared to the changes brought in by the end of nomadic living for early humans). What follows here is my own personal analysis of that poem.
And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time Analysis
Verse by Verse
“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!”
A small amount of historic context here — the primary sources of information held on the life of Jesus of Nazareth are the writings of the disciples who recorded His Ministry, today found in the New Testament of the Catholic Bible. These writings record the birth, early childhood, and preachings of Jesus (cited in the Gospel of Luke to be in His thirties), but leave out the entirety of time between the two periods. According to medieval belief, Jesus had, at one point, visited England during those unknown years.
With this in mind, the verse is fairly straightforward — the narrator is wondering if Jesus had at one point walked upon the hills of England. His strong emphasis on nature — the green mountains and pleasant pastures — paint an idyllic landscape, one worthy of such gentle description as the Lamb of God. It sounds as though Jesus walked across England, but so peaceful was the time that only the greenness of nature was there to greet, or there to watch the important event.
“And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?”
The narrator continues to wonder. The Countenance Divine is an expression used to refer to the Face of God, a sight that — according to the Book of Exodus — no one can see and live. But did, he wonders, the idyllic countryside of England once exist in the presence of that miracle? A long time ago, well before the world as it would have been when And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time was published in 1808 existed.
The final two lines of this stanza are a little more vague. The phrases “Jerusalem” and “dark Satanic Mills” can each take on a wide array of meanings. Because of the strength of the latter phrase, I believe “Jerusalem” to be a metaphor for an ideal place, a utopia; one that fits with the natural splendour of the first stanza, and sharply contrasts with the metaphor of Satanic Mills. A mill could be used as a word to refer to a factory — because of this, it makes sense to think of Satanic Mills to be the present-day for the poem, when factories and industrialization were a sweeping force in England. The narrator compares the idyllic heaven that might have existed in the presence of Jesus to his present-day life, surrounded by pollution, noise, and exploitation. And if the latter is the exact opposite to God’s Heaven, it must be Satanic in nature.
“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!”
There is a lot of anger in these lines. Bow, arrow, spear; burning gold and flaming chariot; commanding the clouds, and a lot of exclamation points. These are marks of anger, of war, of burning frustration. The Chariot of Fire is often used as an analogy for divine energy, and was cited in the Bible as being part of the prophet Elijah’s ascent into Heaven. If the revolution in England is Satanic in nature, then it makes sense to call for a holy war, and to imagine that God would want the influence of this anti-heaven removed from the world.
“I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green and pleasant Land.”
The final stanza of And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time follows this call to action with a promise. The narrator will not rest, he has declared, until the heaven bestowed upon the English people by Jesus is restored. Here again we see a yearning for a land that is green and pleasant, which contrasts not only with Satanic Mills, but also with the Chariot of Fire, the Sword, the Spear, the Bow and Arrows. There is a sense of burning action, and then an need for peace to follow. The desire of this narrator is to return England to its sense of peace… at any cost.
A lot of historic context has already been discussed earlier; as was mentioned, And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time was written during the rise of industrialization in England, a process that was considered dark and evil by a great many farmers who would be put out of business by it. The earliest factory in London, where Blake was living at the time, was one that could produce thousands of bushels of flour per week, something that would significantly undermine the ability of local agriculture to remain a healthy business. It was ultimately destroyed in a fire, but it was only the first of its kind, as industrialization swept through England, and ultimately, much of the world.
By contrast, the Church of England has long used Jerusalem as a metaphor for Heaven, and the story that Jesus had visited England in His youth is one that has carried through to the present day, and certainly would have been a factor in the minds of the religious in the nineteenth century. It makes sense to think of this poem as being an analysis and comparison of humanity against machinery, and nature against industrialization, because those were two extremely powerful ideologies of the time.
Needless to say, the Industrial Revolution won that particular struggle, and the idyllic dream of the English countryside was quickly overtaken by a vast array of efficiency, production, and, of course, money, the other kind of pleasant greenery that keeps the world spinning. As for the peaceful countryside that Jesus once may have walked upon — well, it is still there. If there’s any silver living to this poem, it’s that two hundred years later, industrialism may still be dominant, but it definitely isn’t almighty, and there’s still plenty of peaceful nature to go around. Hopefully Blake would also consider that to be a small victory for England’s pleasant green.
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