William Blake’s magnum opus, ‘Jerusalem’, is analyzed in-depth from myriad aspects, entailing the poet’s mindset during the period, the political situation, inclinations, the Christian allegories and lastly, his social revolution ideology. The poem is now an unofficial national anthem of England.
Jerusalem is an infamous prophetic, melancholic and classic poem, penned by maestro William Blake during the birth of 19th century. Penned in 1804 to be precise, it may seem as a patriotic poem, yet it’s misleading to begin with, furthermore, adding to the irony is the fact that it’s an unofficial national anthem of England.
William Blake was a social reformer and an ardent supporter of French Revolution which toppled the monarchy. His poem revisits an urban legend of a young Jesus walking on English shores during his ‘lost years’. William Blake despises the tyranny of British rule and the horrors of industrialization knocking on English doors.
The prophetic poem is a mishmash of fantasy and reality, embedded with a political and social message therein. It’s a master-class of subliminal messages aptly delivered by William Blake.
- Poetic form
- Poetic structure
- Stanza analysis
- Historical perspective
- Personal commentary
Poetic Form of Jerusalem
Each stanza consists of 4-verses, which are known as quatrains. Each quatrain consists of iambic tetrameter since each verse entails 4-iambs.
The poetic devices used here are as follows:
Looking into the structure of the poem Jerusalem works within the iambic tetrameter. As a result, each verse consists of four tetra (four) iambs. For instance, ‘And did those feet in ancient time’ has four iambs.
The regular meter is disturbed in a few places, for most cases, there’s a regular rhyme scheme consisting of A-B-C-B, as every letter is placed for ending with a rhyme. As a result, 2nd and 4th lines rhyme intrinsically while other verses may not.
In case of the 3rd stanza, the poet digresses from the usual meter and rhyme conventions. The poet uses 2-spondees and 2-iambs to work with his verses. For instance, ‘Bring me my bow of burning gold’ is one such example. The 3rd stanza works with the rhyme scheme of A-B-A-B. It is much compact as a result. As with the convention of A-B-C-B, the ending is a bit looser as opposed to A-B-A-B.
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
The poet asks an age-old question if the divine feet ever walked on English shores. The Lamb of God is an allusion to Jesus Christ here. The verse is open-ended, but given William Blake’s affinity with Christianity, the answer is unquestionably, Jesus. As with his poem, ‘The Tyger’, the readers ultimately feel the poem’s central theme is god as opposed to jungle’s tiger, the Lamb of God allusion is present.
The poet is in interrogation mood when he contemplates if the divine entity ever walked on English lands once.
The Lamb of God also appears in Gospel of John. It is mentioned with reference to sacrificial lamb as Jesus died for our sins, atoning mankind on the whole, as Christianity hypothesizes. To fill the gaps here for the readers, ‘the lost years’ refers to the years (12-30), when Jesus is said to have been disappeared from writings. As per legend, he may have arrived on British shores with Joseph of Arimathea. Blake wants to explore all terrains as is the case here, even entertaining this wishful legend.
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
The poet continues stoically in his interrogative mode, contemplating if his divine presence ever landed mistakenly upon English shores. Did he walk on our clouded hills and taught disciples about peace and forgiveness? The terrain of questioning is same as first stanza, wondering if Jesus Christ may have lived in these lands before preaching in his native land. His face is alluding to light as in bringing a change in terms of reforms. As a matter of fact, Jesus of Nazareth for all intents and purposes may have been black complexioned. In these passages, he notes the need of light to cleanse the darkness, indicating presence of Jesus.
Then coming to the third verse, he wonders if Jesus formed a New Jerusalem in these very lands, among these inhuman mills. The term builded just means built. He is simply playing with words here. Satanic Mills and Jerusalem are popular terms appearing in William Blake’s poetry constantly. The poet refers to the promised biblical Jerusalem alluded in Bible, Book of Revelation. As the Christian theology hypothesizes, after the earth is destroyed, a new haven will emerge in the form of New Jerusalem. The true believers of Christ will live in it for eternity. As for William Blake, Jerusalem represents the perfect city with no discord , equality and in essence, a utopia.
As for the Satanic Mills, the poet has immense sympathy for common labor folks working tirelessly in an industrial age under the monarchy. The mills are referred to as hackers of peace and serenity. For him, the Industrial Revolution has only mechanized the lives of people. He fears and loathes this age with full fervor. Industrial Revolution was just taking off in his time-period and he for one, feeling nauseous about it.
For William Blake, the mills clearly have satanic origins since it has increased child labor, unhealthy work conditions, coal-burning, pollution and mechanized lives. In conclusion, Blake wonders whether he walked on these lands, a time long past.
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!
After mentioning the satanic mills, the poet is psyched up to the maximum. He embarks on painting a mythical tale with chariots of fire, the clouds to unfold for him. The poet seems to be alluding to ancient Greek Gods or angels which as the popular culture go, are hypothesized to be wandering the skies in magnificent forms and stylistic traits.
As clear from the verses, it’s another allusion to the biblical verses from Kings. It’s the story of Elijah, one of the biggest prophets of Old Testament. In this story, the prophet Elijah is taken on a heavenly ride on chariot of fire. He ascends to heaven in this godly vehicle created during the normative imagination of the time to justify god’s divine message. He wants to reincarnate the similitude of this fantasy tale written in Bible.
The events get doubly interesting since Elijah brings divine wrath upon those who deserved it. As the fictional legend goes, Elijah orders divine fire from the skies in order to neutralize a group of people. In essence, he intends to destroy these imminent heresies known as mills destroying the very essence of natural existence bringing mechanization into its fold. William Blake is intensely connected to Bible and its fictional legends, bringing them into play as his poems progress to render a dramatic sound and grandness.
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.
William Blake isn’t much for violence, and so are the grandiose characters in his poems. Weapons are mostly used to denote action metaphorically, though with vigor. William Blake is averse to burnings, deaths and all things kafka-esque. As a result, the term, ‘Mental Flight’ is an allusion to a non-violent struggle to emerge from the ashes a cleansed nation. The French Revolution was still fresh in Blake’s mind. According to him, the doors of perceptions need to be revisited once in a while.
As per Martin Luther King, people should judge people as per their character, not by their skin’s color. He inserts the idea of a societal revolution very cleverly, readily apparent to those capable of reading between the lines. The sword indicates the strength and will to fight constantly as the night is darkest before dawn. The battle between yin and yang will continue as always.
He isn’t asserting to create a New Jerusalem by leading battle against the monarchy. It’s simply a metaphor to recreate changed world altogether in a reformed manner.
Plain and simplistic living is the ideal life for Blake, doing away with the fast industrialization for good. The world is fast changing in front of Blake’s eyes as he contemplates reverting to old lifestyle and steering away from recreating a ‘1984-esque’ world in nearby future.
Historical Perspective to Jerusalem
William Blake published his literary classic, Jerusalem in 1804. The poem was inspired from a mythical legend of a young Jesus on shores of England. The myth is linked to a biblical verse in Book of Revelations where Jesus supposedly creates a second Jerusalem. The details of the legend are buried in annals of time and lost in twisted tales. However, the poem is regarded as a national anthem for England as opposed to official jingoist anthem.
In a literal interpretation of Jerusalem, he contemplates if Jesus walked on English shores once as the popular legend is milked from time to time. He wonders about establishing a New Jerusalem as promised in the Bible. The poem is embedded with biblical connotations and realistic events leading to a melting pot of ideas and interpretations as a result.
Moreover, it’s also an indication to an event steeped in history of Albion town. The first factory setup in Albion as Albion Flour Mills was opposed by native inhabitants, ultimately incinerating it in 1791, due to increased monetary loss to local producers. The poem struck chord with the masses as a result since it was an attempt to capitalize on flour business and stamping on bourgeois class.
The chariot of fire is an allusion from Bible’s chapter, ‘Kings’ where Prophet Elijah ascends to the heavens and brings wrath to those who opposed him. In similitude, it has been referred to as this very factory incineration event. ‘Green and pleasant land’ has become a universally quoted line, found in limitless books and articles.
William Blake was an outspoken advocate of French Revolution and inserted political anecdotes and social ideals via his poetry. He stood for radical change and imagined a toppling of British monarchy a la French Revolution.
Seemingly, William Blake and his wife Catherine were revolutionaries of their time. Coming from severe distress, poverty and life of obscurity, they despised governmental institutions, church, army and advocated the rights of the poor. He was a huge fan of French Revolution, which threw the yoke of tyranny, imposing people’s rule. Surrounded by mobs of government and the church, he shifted to Felpham, Sussex. His hopes were short-lived as an argument with two British soldiers resulted in implication on treason charges, carrying death penalty.
William Blake’s last prophetic poem, Jerusalem has inspired scholars dead in their tracks. Being a deeply religious person, William Blake’s The Tyger and Jerusalem are steeped in Christian allegories and themes on the whole. The poet was entirely against the concept of industrialization which enveloped fast the proletariat class of England back in 1804. Pained by its disastrous effects, William Blake wrote an anti-industrialization poem, steeped in Christian allegory with open-ended meanings.
Scholars throughout the ages have been transfixed by its incoherent poetic structure, apocalyptic themes and structural discord. Albeit, they agree that the total scope of the poem may never be fully realized. The theories asserted by noted experts are outlined as follows:
- It’s a vivid description of stages of a man from childhood to old age
- Humanity eventually finds its place in the world after repeated struggle
- Human has survived through multiple apocalyptic events and will do so
- The paradoxical nature of man to sin and atone repeatedly
- The system and anti-system constructs are akin to yin and yang enveloping humans
- It’s an indication to those who missed his allegories in previous poems
- Uses biblical legends to weave an ordinary change movement