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Jerusalem: And did those feet in ancient time by William Blake

‘Jerusalem’ is a famous, prophetic, melancholic, and classic poem, penned by maestro William Blake in 1804. It may seem like a patriotic poem, yet it’s misleading, adding to the irony is the fact that it’s an unofficial national anthem of England.

Jerusalem by William Blake Visual Representation

In William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ or ‘And did those feet in ancient time,’ the changes brought in by the Industrial Revolution for human society are compared to the changes brought in by the end of nomadic living for early humans. 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 this short poem, sometimes called “The New Jerusalem”.

Jerusalem: And did those feet in ancient time
William Blake

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon Englands 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.
Jerusalem by William Blake


Summary

William Blake’s magnum opus, ‘Jerusalem,’ presents myriad aspects, entailing the poet’s mindset during the beginning of the 19th century, the political situation, inclinations, the Christian allegories, and lastly, his social revolution ideology.

William Blake published his literary classic, ‘Jerusalem’ in 1804. The poem was inspired by a mythical legend of a young Jesus on the shores of England. The myth is linked to a biblical verse in the 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 the official jingoist anthem.

This poem begins with a reference to the divine feet that stepped on the English greenery. In the present scenarios, the speaker asks whether it is the same England where God might have arrived. He becomes angry after seeing the impact of Industrialization. So, he attempts to topple everything by seeking energy from Greek gods. Lastly, he makes clear that the battle is a mental, not a physical one. He wishes to form Jerusalem in the green and pleasant English lands.

Meaning

William Blake was a social reformer and an ardent supporter of the French Revolution which toppled the monarchy. His poem revisits an urban legend of a young Jesus walking on English shores during his “lost years”. 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.

The Church of England has long used “Jerusalem” as a metaphor for heaven, and the story that Jesus had visited England in his youth 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 analysis and comparison of humanity against machinery, and nature against industrialization because those were two extremely powerful ideologies of the time.

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.

Structure

Each stanza of Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ consists of four verses, which are known as quatrains. It works within the iambic tetrameter. Each quatrain consists of four (tetra) iambs. For instance, the following line contains four iambic feet:

And did/ those feet/ in an-/cient time,

The regular meter is disturbed in a few places, for most cases, there’s a regular rhyme scheme consisting of ABCB, as every letter is placed for ending with a rhyme. As a result, the 2nd and 4th lines rhyme intrinsically while other verses may not.

In the case of the 3rd stanza, the poet digresses from the usual meter and rhyme conventions. He uses two spondees and two iambs to work with his verses. For example:

Bring me/ my Bow/ of bur-/ning gold:

The 3rd stanza works with the rhyme scheme of ABAB. It is much more compact as a result. As with the convention of ABCB, the ending is a bit looser as opposed to ABAB.

Literary Devices

The poetic devices used in Blake’s poem are as follows:

  • Alliteration: It occurs in “pleasant pastures”, “Bring me my Bow of burning gold”, and “Sword sleep”.
  • Anaphora: All the lines of the third stanza begin with the phrase “Bring me my…”. It is an example of anaphora.
  • Metaphor: This device is present in the phrases such as “Lamb of God”, “dark Satanic Mills”, etc.
  • Allusion: It can be found throughout the poem in the references to Christ’s coming to England, “Satanic Mills”, “Arrows of desire”, etc.
  • Ambiguity: “And did the Countenance Divine,/ Shine forth upon our clouded hills?”


Themes

William Blake’s prophetic poem, ‘Jerusalem’ has inspired scholars dead in their tracks. Being a deeply religious person, 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 fast enveloped 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 the stages of a man from childhood to old age
  • Humanity eventually finds its place in the world after a repeated struggle
  • Human has survived through multiple apocalyptic events and will do so
  • The paradoxical nature of man to sin and atonement 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.


Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

And did those feet in ancient time

Walk upon Englands mountains green:

And was the holy Lamb of God,

On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

This verse of ‘Jerusalem’ 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.

Let’s have a close look at the meaning of these lines below:

Lines 1–2

And did those feet in ancient time

Walk upon Englands mountains green:

Blake asks an age-old question if the divine feet ever walked on English shores. He is in an interrogation mood when he contemplates if Christ ever walked on English lands once. 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.

Lines 3–4

And was the holy Lamb of God,

On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

The “Lamb of God” is an allusion to Jesus Christ. This verse is open-ended, but given William Blake’s affinity with Christianity, the answer is unquestionably Jesus Christ. As with his poem, ‘The Tyger,’ the readers ultimately feel the poem’s central theme is god as opposed to the jungle’s tiger, the “Lamb of God” allusion is present. It also contains an echo to Blake’s ‘The Lamb’.

The “Lamb of God” also appears in the 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 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.

Stanza Two

And did the Countenance Divine,

Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

And was Jerusalem builded here,

Among these dark Satanic Mills?

In the second stanza, the narrator continues stoically in his interrogative mode, contemplating if his divine presence ever landed mistakenly upon English shores. Did he walk on their clouded hills and taught disciples about peace and forgiveness? The terrain of questioning is the same as the first stanza, wondering if Jesus Christ may have lived in these lands before preaching in his native land.

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.

As for the “dark 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. The Industrial Revolution was just taking off in his time and he for one, feeling nauseous about it.

To know the in-depth meaning of these lines, let’s quickly scan the following sections:

Lines 5–6

And did the Countenance Divine,

Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

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 ‘Jerusalem’ was published in 1808 existed.

Moreover, the “Countenance Divine” alludes to the 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 the presence of Jesus.

Lines 7–8

And was Jerusalem builded here,

Among these dark Satanic Mills?

The final two lines of this stanza are a little vague. The “dark Satanic Mills” and Jerusalem are popular terms appearing in William Blake’s poems constantly. Blake refers to the promised biblical Jerusalem alluded to in the Bible, Book of Revelation. As 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 Blake, Jerusalem represents the perfect city with no discord, equality, and in essence, a utopia.

The phrases “Jerusalem” and “dark Satanic Mills” can each take on a wide array of meanings. Because of the strength of the latter phrase, “Jerusalem” is a metaphor for an ideal place, a utopia; one that fits with the natural splendor of the first stanza, and sharply contrasts with the metaphor of the “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 of God’s heaven, it must be satanic in nature.

For Blake, the mills clearly have satanic origins since it has increased child labor, unhealthy work conditions, coal-burning, pollution, and mechanized lives. In conclusion, the poet wonders whether he walked on these lands, a time long past.

Stanza Three

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 goes, are hypothesized to be wandering the skies in magnificent forms and stylistic traits. Especially, the “Chariot of fire” has been referred to as a factory incineration event described in the historic context section.

Let’s analyze the lines a little further below:

Lines 9–10

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:

Bring me my Arrows of desire:

There is a lot of anger in these lines of the third stanza: “Bow”, “arrows”, “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. If the revolution in England is satanic in nature, then it makes sense to call for holy war and to imagine that God would want the influence of this anti-heaven removed from the world.

Lines 11–12

Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!

Bring me my Chariot of fire!

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. Here, Blake alludes to the biblical verses from Kings. It’s the story of Elijah, one of the biggest prophets of the Old Testament. In this story, the prophet Elijah is taken on a heavenly ride on a chariot of fire. He ascends to heaven in this godly vehicle created during the normative image of the time to justify god’s divine message. He wants to reincarnate the similitude of this fantasy tale written in the Bible.

The events get doubly interesting since Elijah brings divine wrath upon those who deserved it. As the fictional legend goes, he 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 the Bible and its fictional legends, bringing them into play as his poems progress to render a dramatic sound and grandness.

Stanza Four

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.

The final stanza of ‘Jerusalem’ 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 & 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 a need for peace to follow. This narrator desires to return England to its sense of peace at any cost.

The lines are analyzed in-depth below:

Lines 13–14

I will not cease from Mental Fight,

Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:

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. The poet is averse to burnings, deaths, and all things kafkaesque. As a result, the term, “Mental Fight” is an allusion to a non-violent struggle to emerge from the ashes of 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 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.

Lines 15–16

Till we have built Jerusalem,

In Englands green & pleasant Land.

In these lines, he isn’t asserting to create a New Jerusalem by leading a battle against the monarchy. It’s simply a metaphor to recreate a changed world altogether in a reformed manner. The “green & pleasant Land” has become a universally quoted line, found in limitless books and articles.

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 the near future.

Historical Context

‘Jerusalem’ 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 poem alludes to an event steeped in the history of Albion town. The first factory Albion Flour Mills was opposed by native inhabitants, ultimately incinerating it in 1791, due to increased monetary loss to local producers. The poem struck a chord with the masses as a result since it was an attempt to capitalize on flour business and stamping on the bourgeois class.

It was the earliest factory in London, where William 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.

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 lining 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.

About William Blake

William Blake was an outspoken advocate of the 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 a life of obscurity, they despised governmental institutions, church, army and advocated the rights of the poor. He was a huge supporter of the 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 the death penalty.

FAQs

Is ‘Jerusalem’ a religious song?

The poem ‘Jerusalem: And did those feet in ancient time’ appears in the preface to William Blake’s epic “Milton: A Poem in Two Books”. The English musician Sir Hubert Parry rendered Blake’s poem into the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ in 1916.

Why did William Blake hate the industrial revolution?

Several reasons were there to hate an event that not only affected thousands of poor lives and changed the greenery into greenhouses. William Blake, being a poet close to the lush English fields, hated the industrial revolution due to its impact on nature, innocent people, their beliefs, and thinking patterns.

What did Blake mean by ‘Jerusalem’?

Blake uses his poem’s title ‘Jerusalem’ as a symbol of rejuvenation, greenery, and heaven. He compares England before the Industrial Revolution to biblical Jerusalem, a metaphor for heaven.

What is the meaning of “dark Satanic Mills”?

The infamous phrase “dark Satanic Mills” refers to the mills or factories of the industrial era. Through this phrase, Blake means that the industrial revolution was not a blessing in disguise. It was a blessing with a two-headed sword. Like Satan, it appeared to be positive but harmed several lives.

Who coined the phrase “green and pleasant land”?

William Blake coined the phrase “green and pleasant land” in his prophetic poem ‘Jerusalem’. This phrase appears in the last line of the poem: “In Englands green & pleasant Land.”


Similar Poetry

The following poems are similar to the themes present in William Blake’s prophetic verse ‘Jerusalem: And did those feet in ancient time’.

You can also read about these lush nature poems and these best-loved William Blake poems.

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Jerusalem by William Blake Visual Representation
Omer Asad Poetry Expert
About
Omer joined the Poem Analysis team back in November 2015. He has a keen eye for poetry and enjoys analysing them, providing his intereptation of poems from the past and present.
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