The Olympics may seem like ancient history to the fast-moving blogosphere, but I’m still mining the opening ceremony for elements of British life that Americans and other foreigners might not have understood. After all, the designers set out explicitly to display Britishness, and they didn’t make many concessions to people unfamiliar with Britain.
In that ceremony—after the countdown, and after Bradley Wiggins rang the enormous Olympic bell—11-year-old Humphrey Keeper sang these words from a poem by 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?
(Rules of punctuation weren’t as firmly set in Blake’s time, so those aren’t typos you see there, I’m just presenting the lines the way Blake wrote them.)
To anybody here in the UK, this hymn, generally called “Jerusalem”, immediately ticks the box (US: checks the box) marked Patriotic Song, though most foreigners must have been puzzled. Jerusalem? And, um, something Satanic?
The first stanza is straightforward, if odd: the poet seems to ask whether it’s true that Jesus visited England, and in fact many different legends here say he did. This isn’t like the Mormon story of Jesus appearing in the US after the resurrection; these legends suggest that in the gap the Bible leaves between Jesus, age 12, and Jesus, age 30, he dropped in on us.
Other people say he traveled through India, Tibet, Persia, Greece, Egypt—clearly he got around rather more than the average Judaean teenager—but in England alone you can take your pick from several options: Joseph of Arimathea (the man who donated Jesus’ tomb) was Jesus’ uncle/great-uncle and was a sailor/a shipwright/a tin refining worker/a tin merchant, who visited Cornwall/Somerset for his business/on the request of St Paul/because Jesus wanted him to deliver the Holy Grail/to become the first bishop of these islands. He brought young Jesus along on the trip once/twice as a cabin boy/as a ship’s carpenter/to enroll him in a school run by the Druids, who at the time offered the best education to be had. His mother Mary came, too/didn’t come/came, died, and is buried on these shores, but in any case, Jesus came and settled here a while/was shipwrecked here/was stranded here for the winter, until the weather was favorable to sail back. (And those aren’t even all the known variations. It isn’t only nature that abhors a vacuum; a lot of people must have felt a need to fill in those missing years.)
Unfortunately, after I had a great time researching all that, I found that Blake probably wasn’t writing about a visit from Jesus at all. Once the idea of such a visit comes up, it seems almost impossible to think Blake could be talking about anything else, but folklorists have found no other trace of the stories before about 1890, which is almost 100 years after Blake wrote the poem. That doesn’t mean that the stories originated with Blake, either; scholars have found no other evidence, in the thousands of pages Blake wrote, showing that he believed any such thing, though they’ve found similar passages in which it’s clear that Blake was thinking about Jerusalem, not Jesus.
For my purposes it doesn’t matter; I write about British life, and I’d bet my house that the average Britons on the street, if they have opinions about the lyrics at all, believe Blake referred to those same old stories. The stories themselves are part of British history anyway; early 20th-century folklorists recorded plenty of tales of the form “Of course everybody knows Jesus visited our town”, particularly in tin-mining communities, where they also found a folksong, “Joseph was a tin man”, and where tin workers used to call out “Joseph was in the tin trade” as a good luck charm at one dangerous step in the refining process. It’s a good bet that at least a few people in Britain today still believe that Jesus walked “upon England’s mountains green”.
In any case, Blake’s poem moves right along from the feet and countenance (whatever they refer to) to the building of Jerusalem, apparently in England—a strange idea, but one for which there’s a lot more data out there.
Blake, for all his personal mythology, was a Christian, though a Nonconformist (one who rejects the Church of England; it’s a term still in use). And, at least for a while, he followed the teachings of Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, who said that anybody can understand the Bible in the obvious, earthly way, but only he, Swedenborg, could read it in a special, spiritual way and interpret it for everybody else.
That’s because the second coming had already occurred, in the form of a revelation to Swedenborg personally, which resulted in Swedenborg’s freedom to come and go from heaven and hell as he pleased, and to converse with angels, with demons, and with spirits from other celestial bodies: the moon, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Saturn, Venus, and planets beyond our solar system. His list didn’t include Neptune, Uranus or Pluto, which hadn’t been discovered yet, which seems a bit of a giveaway about Swedenborg’s celestial knowledge. (Although I’m skeptical, to say the least, I don’t mean to offend any of the 10,000 members of Swedenborgian congregations in the US, the UK, the Netherlands and South Africa who are actively worshiping along these lines.)
Blake, with others, signed a declaration saying he believed all that to be true and called for the establishment of the New Jerusalem Church, but he didn’t have to be a Swedenborgian to talk about the New Jerusalem; the term comes from the book of Revelation, which is full of mystical stuff and therefore right up Blake’s alley (UK: right up Blake’s street). Mysticism was in the air back then; Blake knew people who claimed they could raise the dead, and not only did these people say they had conversations with God and Jesus, one artist he knew claimed the Virgin Mary had posed for his painting, which must have given him an edge over all Madonna-painting artists before or since.
Blake, following Swedenborg, didn’t take Revelations literally, but thought of the New Jerusalem as symbolic of a new church movement that would sweep away the old, and clearly from the poem (that is, from the second verse, which I haven’t mentioned yet, sorry) Blake believed we would have to put in the effort to construct it ourselves, among the “dark Satanic mills” of the industrial revolution.
But, having made it through the first stanza, with Jesus’ visit to England, and most of the second, with the new Jerusalem, I’ll have to leave the subject until the next post—along with the question of how this song came to be associated with patriotism in the first place. To tide you over, here’s a clip of the crowd at the last night of the Proms singing “Jerusalem”; I’ll have to tell you about the Proms another time, but for now you only need to know that it’s a series of concerts, conventional until the last night when, er, audience participation breaks out in a big way. Believe it or not, this clip from 2011 doesn’t show nearly as much flag-waving as clips of some other years, but I like this one because you can see close-ups of people singing. Okay, a few are looking down at their programmes to be sure of the words, but most of them are just singing along because almost everybody here knows this song, with its obscure words, the same way most Americans know “America, the Beautiful” (which is a lot easier to understand).
The video shows the interior of the Albert Hall, where the orchestra is, and Hyde Park, where big screens display events to the thousands who didn’t get tickets. Unfortunately the video isn’t always in sync with the sound; the young men with beer cans seem to be almost a phrase behind, but you can tell they know all the words and are singing their hearts out. Near the end of the video, back inside the hall, you can see a young lady in an Islamic-style headscarf waving a Union jack and singing what is fundamentally a Christian song about Jerusalem—which is, to my eye, rather a nice way to characterize modern multicultural Britain. I wonder what Blake would think of it.