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Jerusalem: William Blake, 1804

And did those feet in ancient time

Walk upon Englands mountains green?

And was the holy Lamb of God

On England's pleasant pastures seen?

And did the countenance divine

Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

And was Jerusalem builded here

Among those 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 this our green and pleasant land.


Let us remember John Knox's mantle before continuing: "Give me Scotland or I die." Nicky Gumbel tells a story to show how he benefited from religious assemblies as a boy in England. They often had to sing "Jerusalem" at the mandatory religious assembly in school. He notes that to the question, "And did those feet in ancient time walk upon Englands mountains green?" they all knew the answer was, "No, of course not." In fact, the answer to every question in the first stanza is no. Yet what is it Blake is really asking? He was not likely such a buffoon as to truly wonder if "those feet" walked on England's mountains or if the Lamb of God was seen in England's pastures, or if the countenance divine "shine forth" upon England's hills, or if Jerusalem was built there. Obviously the above are not literal questions being asked by the narrator of this poem. So why were they asked? These questions are not meant to be answered aloud, and they could be counted as "rhetorical".


In 1804, England was a "Christian" nation. The Church of England had undergone Wesleyan renewal, and those who weren't a part were evangelical Methodists. England was sending out missionaries to various nations, printing Hindi Bibles for Indians, and other good works. The British Empire was strong in 1804. It seemed that God was on the side of the English. And here comes this poem by Blake, asking these questions. In a way, these questions serve as a caution to the English people. "Who are we to gloat over our own goodness?" the narrator almost asks. "Was the holy Lamb of God on England's pleasant pastures seen? And did the countenance divine shine forth upon our clouded hills?" Then the narrator asks the reader this, "Heres the clincher: Was Jerusalem builded here among those dark satanic mills?" And, hopefully, this gives the reader pause. England is not the centre of the world. Jesus did not even walk there.


But Blake does not simply ask questions. He asks questions with certain words. Green mountains are something to be proud of. Yet, the poet asks, were these mountains so great that "those feet in ancient time" walk upon them? Green is connotative of health. It is also an archetype of youth. England's mountains are contrasted suddenly with Jesus' feet. Jesus' feet from ancient time--they did not set foot upon these young, young mountains. What are these healthy, green mountains compared to the ancient feet of Jesus?


The next question asks if "the holy Lamb of God / On Englands pleasant pastures seen". Here the symbol of Jesus as the sacrificial lamb is brought into the poem. A lamb would normally be seen in pastures. Yet this Lamb was not. The Lamb that saved the souls of all the English did not graze there. The idea of sheep is seen in pastures another way. Jesus calls himself "the Good Shepherd." Numerous times throughout the Bible, humans are referred to as sheep. Here we see that where the English graze, these "pleasant pastures," was not where Jesus was. The other question it could raise in the reader is, "Is Jesus in England's pleasant pastures now?" Do we see the Good Shepherd in the pastures of England? Are the sheep in England being herded by the Good Shepherd? And if the Good Shepherd is not here, how pleasant are these pastures? Indeed, there was a day when the Good Shepherd was not in England. Could the pastures have then been called pleasant?


In the first two questions, Blake uses words that have a positive connotation in describing England, green and pleasant. In the third question, he asks about the countenance divine and whether it in ancient time shone "forth upon our clouded hills?" Suddenly, the connotation of the words describing England changes. The connotation of "clouded" is negative. Often, people refer to something being clouded as being obscure, unclear, uncertain. A clouded mind is a mind that does not work at top efficiency. As well, people think of sunny days in relation to happiness and cloudy days in relation to sadness traditionally. So here we have England's "clouded hills": obscure, unclear, uncertain, not working at top efficiency, sad. The question tells us why: the countenance divine did not shine upon England's hills. The final question asks if Jerusalem was built "among those dark satanic mills". Blake refers to the multitude of mills found in nineteenth century England. "Progress"--and he declares it satanic. So how great is England now? Satanism is a very serious charge--especially in nineteenth-century England. Satanism is the very opposite of being right with God. Thus, Blake asks, who are we to brag that while Jerusalem was built, we were satanic? Who are we to boast seeing as how Jerusalem, the Holy City, is not even here? Who are we to be proud--we construct satanic things in our fair land! Indeed, diction contributes much to the meaning of this poem.


The second stanza of "Jerusalem" picks up a bit. The narrator demands that several items be brought to him: his bow of burning gold, his arrows of desire, his spear, his chariot of fire. The bow is wrought from gold, that one metal mankind has sought for most of his history, seeking ways to create it--even killing and dying for it. Gold is the purest metal, of the greatest worth. From this worthy bow he will shoot arrows of desire. Desire is that which can raise a person to greatness or cause him to wallow in the depths of despair. These arrows are his tools for achieving his desire. Next he calls for his spear. The spear is the traditional Anglo-Saxon weapon from ancient days, and with a row of spears before it a cavalry charge is useless. A spear hurled through the arrow can be very deadly. Indeed, he calls for a spear, a formidable weapon. Finally, he calls for his chariot of fire. The chariot was the innovation that gave ancient Egyptian armies an edge over their enemies. And we read in I Kings that it was a chariot of fire that separated Elijah from Elisha before a whirlwind carried Elijah up to heaven. Since that event, chariots of fire have been associated with heaven and glory.


We see in the third line, "Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!", the narrator commanding the clouds to leave England. He orders, spear in hand, for England to cease being obscure, unclear, uncertain, not working at top efficiency, and sad. The fifth line shows that the narrators fight is not a literal, physical one, but a figurative, mental one. He declares, "I will not cease from mental fight". His fight with these weapons of purity, desire, power, tradition, heavenly glory, and innovation is one that he fights with his mind, his will. The sixth line reveals his perseverance, that his sword shall not sleep in his hand. The condition that the sword will finally sleep in his hand is when "we have built Jerusalem / in this our green and pleasant land." His fight will go on until a new Jerusalem, a Holy City for God, a place to worship, a place where people go to be with God, a place of pilgrimage, the centre of the world almost has been built in England. Then everything switches around. It is now a triumphal, hopeful hymn. "Our green and pleasant land" is green and pleasant. It will be a place for "those feet" to walk, for the holy Lamb of God to be seen, for the countenance divine to shine, for Jerusalem, the place of holiness. With this conclusion, Blake declares it will not matter that the answers to the above questions is no. It can all be here, where we are. We just have to fight.


Poetry is not static. It, like all art, does not speak solely to the people of its time. It is not a purely contextual form. We must realise that "Jerusalem" speaks not just to the English in 1804 but to Canadians in 2002 and all peoples into eternity. These questions could just as easily be asked of Canada as of England. So could that triumphant conclusion be sung. Blake is not saying only to the English that if they "will not cease from mental fight . . . till we have built Jerusalem in this our green and pleasant land" that it is okay that the answer to the above questions was no. He says this also to Canadians. Let us remember this and declare it ourselves. Reread that second stanza and say it quietly to the world. "I will not cease from mental fight, / Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, / Till we have built Jerusalem / In this our green and pleasant land." 

Copyright 2004, Matthew Hoskin