The poem by William Blake that is generally known as “Jerusalem” is probably the best known of his works, although it was not given that title by its author. Blake did write a poem called “Jerusalem”, but it is one of his immensely long “Prophetic Books”, written between 1804 and 1820, that is little read today.
What we know as “Jerusalem” forms part of the preface (otherwise in prose) to another of his Prophetic Books, namely “Milton”, that dates from 1804-08. The sixteen lines that concern us have no title, but, as they concern the building of a “new Jerusalem”, the name has stuck in the public imagination and everyone understands “Blake’s Jerusalem” to mean this poem.
The fame of the poem was assured in 1916 when set to music by Sir Hubert Parry. It became a patriotic hymn during World War I and the anthem of the Women’s Institute. It has also been suggested as a suitable candidate for an English National Anthem for use at sporting and other occasions.
The sixteen lines, originally written as four four-line stanzas, divide into two distinct parts. The first eight lines comprise four questions, each beginning “And”. The first of these pairs is:
“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?”
This refers to the ancient legend that, as a boy, Jesus of Nazareth was taken by his great-uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, on one of the latter’s trading visits to England. Although there is absolutely no evidence for this claim, it is just about possible that a metals trader from ancient Palestine, which Joseph could have been, made visits to Cornwall, which was a vital source of tin and other metals that were traded with various parts of the Roman Empire. Why would he not have taken his young great-nephew on such a trip? One can imagine young Jesus begging his parents to let him go and their eventual giving in to his entreaties.
So, if the boy Jesus did visit England, in Blake’s eyes that made England a special place by having been blessed by the “Countenance Divine”. It also made England a prime candidate for the building of “New Jerusalem”.
The fourth couplet of the poem reads:
“And was Jerusalem builded here / Among these dark Satanic mills?”
This refers not only to Jesus bringing “Jerusalem” with him, but to three words that have given rise to much speculation as to their meaning. It has long been thought that the dark Satanic mills must be the wool and cotton mills of the Industrial Revolution that was getting into full swing during Blake’s lifetime.
One consequence was that thousands of people migrated from the countryside to take jobs in the new factories. They worked long hours in dangerous environments for the lowest wages that the factory owners could get away with, living in cramped, hastily-built housing that was blighted by the smoke and pollution of the nearby factories. “Satanic” was a fitting description for the social distress caused by the changes, and of which anti-establishment poets such as Blake were well aware.
However, other explanations have been put forward. One is that the reference is to the “Albion Flour Mill”, that was close to where Blake had once lived. Another is that the mills are the grindstones of the Universities, or the Church, both of which were targets for Blake’s anger. Another thought is that Blake, who was living in Sussex at the time he wrote the poem, was referring to the many windmills that had been erected in the area to increase the flour supply during Napoleon’s blockade of Britain. Why Satanic? Because Blake had just read “Don Quixote”, in which the hero does battle with enemy knights who turn out to be windmills.
Whatever the explanation, Blake clearly has a negative attitude to the mills, and sees Jerusalem as a force of good that can defeat their evil.
The second pair of stanzas takes a very different turn. The questioning ends and, in its place, the poet becomes a man of action, determined to take up arms in the “mental fight” to build Jerusalem “in England’s green and pleasant land”. Reminiscence on past legend gives way to present resolve and future intention.
The third stanza comprises four commands to some person or persons unknown:
“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.”
This is very powerful imagery that cannot be taken literally. It would, for example, be difficult to wield a bow and arrows and a spear at the same time! We find in the next stanza that Blake also intends to arm himself with a sword, so he will certainly have his hands full if attempting to control a fiery chariot along with everything else!
Of course, this does not matter, because the battle is not to be a physical one. As the fourth stanza makes clear, this is a “mental fight” to be fought in terms of intellectual persuasion, but with an unshakeable determination and sense of purpose. These are “arrows of desire” to be loosed, the desire being to build the new Jerusalem, by which can be understood the “Heaven on Earth” that could have existed when visited by “those feet in ancient time”.
One thing to note in the last but one line is the change from “I” to “we”. Up to this point, the fight has been a solitary one, with the only reference to anyone else being the imaginary servant who is going to appear with a chariot full of weapons. But now it is “till we have built Jerusalem”. Blake is conscious that it will take more than one person to win the battle, and so this becomes a call to others to follow his example and be led by him.
“Jerusalem” must therefore be seen as a rallying call to the people of England (and this is an “English” rather than a “British” poem) to make their country a fit place for the foundation of Heaven on Earth. It is in some ways a patriotic poem; for example, it suggests that England may already have been blessed by the presence of Jesus. However, it makes no claims that England is currently a great country or worthy of admiration by other nations. Satan is present in the land, in whatever mills we wish to visualise, and huge efforts will be necessary to create the desired situation.
“Jerusalem” is above all a poem of hope, saying that what once existed can exist again, but only through the strong efforts of its citizens. It is not a prayer, as it does not call upon God to make good things happen. That is why it has been accepted by many with no religious convictions as a suitable vehicle of expression for the desire for social change through human determination.