How did those feet in ancient time become a patriotic song? : “Jerusalem” (part 1)

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.)

The William Blake poem that furnished the lyrics for the hymn “Jerusalem”

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.

Blake’s engraving “Christ as the Redeemer of Man”

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.)

“Joseph of Arimathea Among the Rocks of Albion” by Blake

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.

The frontispiece to Blake’s poem “Milton”, from which the lines for the song were taken; Blake did write a poem called Jerusalem, but the words for the song didn’t come from that poem, because that would be far too easy…

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.

Emanuel Swedenborg. For a visionary who claimed to speak with angels and demons, he looks remarkably ordinary, even boring.

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.)

A bust of Swedenborg in Stockholm. Before he became a mystic, he was a scientist, mathematician, engineer and inventor.

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.

The preface to “Milton”, showing the poem that provided the lyrics for “Jerusalem” as they appeared on the page, under a prose paragraph calling Homer, Ovid, Plato and Cicero “Perverted”–Blake didn’t pull his punches–and calling the Bible “Sublime”.

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.


Filed under Arts, Culture

16 responses to “How did those feet in ancient time become a patriotic song? : “Jerusalem” (part 1)

  1. That really was fascinating and must have taken a great deal of research. thank you. As an Englander I should have known at least some of that but to my shame I didn’t

  2. Fabulous blogpost!! I hadn’t heard many of those variations on the theme, but I was told in hushed tones at school that, actually, Joseph of Arimethea brought Jesus to Glastonbury (5 miles down the road, surprise surprise) and that his fabled staff turned into a tree which, like Newton’s Apple Tree, has had cutting after cutting taken, to exist to this day. The Dark, Satanic Mills are supposed to be in Somerset and Avon, the latter of which, naturally, is the ancient Avalon of King Arthur. Oh, the joys of local mythology. I love it!!! Really enjoyed reading your post. : )

    • Yeah, I left the Glastonbury stuff out, thinking it was definitely worth a whole post of its own. When I write about Glastonbury, I’ll have to ask you all about what it was like living in the middle of Mythological Britain. Wanna take a road trip?

  3. Malcolm

    Another absorbing post, mef! As for the Dark Satanic Mills, I was taught (at school in the 1940s) that the reference was to Oxford and Cambridge Universities rather than the all-too-physical mills of northern England. In that same poem, Jerusalem, he also writes:
    I turn my eyes to the Schools & Universities of Europe
    And there behold the Loom of Locke whose Woof rages dire
    Washd by the Water-wheels of Newton. black the cloth
    In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation; cruel Works
    Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic
    Moving by compulsion each other: not as those in Eden: which
    Wheel within Wheel in freedom revolve in harmony & peace.

    He really wasn’t academically inclined!

    • I’ve come back to work up the next post on this subject (finally), and only now noticed you called “Jerusalem”, “the same poem”. Not that it matters overmuch, but that’s actually a different poem; the lyrics for the hymn “Jerusalem” don’t come from Blake’s poem “Jerusalem”, but from the preface to his poem “Milton”. That confusing factoid was tucked away in the caption for one of the pictures above, and so was easily missed!

  4. Candida

    Great post. Blake comes across like the original cult guru a lot of the time, all that stuff in his proverbs about the tigers of wrath being wiser than the horses of instruction and so on. I believe he’d had a cracking conspiracy theory website if he were alive today. Beautifully illustrated. He was very popular at the Quaker school I went to.
    At my other school (very high Church of England, early 1980s) they never sang Jerusalem for a similar reason to that Malcolm cites but not quite the same; that the mills were the bastions of the conformist faith and as a non-conformist Blake was agin them. Clearly a C of E school would have nothing to do with THAT sort of inflammatory stuff. But once anyone’s seen that painting Coalbrookdale by Night, it’s hard to imagine Blake could have meant anything else.
    The Glastonbury thorn Alison mentions is indeed legendary, and really quite special: a twice-flowering sport of the species, it was supposed to flower at Christmas and Easter, and when Britain changed from the Gregorian to the Julian calendar and people lost however many days it was, crowds went to look at it to see if it agreed with the change. Apparently it didn’t; with the shifting weather patterns we get now I’ve no idea when it does its stuff these days.

    • @Malcolm/Candida: All very interesting stuff! I’ve got a third interpretation of the mills reference in my back pocket; I’ll be sure to mention all of them when I finally get around to writing the next installment. Problem is that it’ll probably be another two weeks…

  5. He called the stone circles, such as Stonehenge, the mills of Satan, the Dark, Satanic Mills.

  6. EW

    What a lot of rubbish. The dark satanic mills were the mills of the Industrial Revolution. Blake was “loosing his marbles” we were taught when he wrote this. Especially the 2nd verse.

  7. KMN

    Yes the best part of the Proms is the last night when they start the patriotic half hour of ‘Jerusalem’, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, ‘Rule Britannia’, and of course ‘God save the Queen’. How much it is seen as a tradition was when in 2013 Proms the American female composer walked off the stage before playing them as I think she had a bad wrist or something, the crowd and the orchestra carried on as soon as she left.

  8. dave

    I’m sorry Sir, have you ever posted the second instalment to this story?

  9. Tony Barr

    Interesting, but no one has mentioned the music setting to this piece, by Parry. He wrote an immense number of musical settings which are still sung to this day in Anglican Cathedral, and often parish, liturgies. So it is not incongruous to find a Non-Conformist text being used in a liturgical setting, since art is essentially non-denominational (or trans-denominational). As a composer and text writer, I’ve even included astrophysics in my own musings on biblical texts.

    • Would love links to your works that take their lyrics from astrophysics–sounds interesting!

      • Tony Barr

        Backstory: I’m a postgrad theologian, now retired from liturgist and parish music director. After graduating from Durham (UK), I followed in the footsteps of my kid brother who was a senior astrophysicist with the Europen Space Agency (Dr Paul Barr). I started composing in the throes of Vatican II (mid 60s), and my prof of composition (an eldery Dutchman) later described my style of text writing and composition as ‘beyondist’, insofar as they defied categorization. I have just completed recording my latest project, a CD trilogy entitled WinterSong, which traces both the liturgical year and the Wiccan calendar from the autumnal to the vernal equinoxes. In this, my latest recording project, I offer several ‘Advent’ reflections through, among other things, the ears of traditional Gregorian chant but the eyes of the cosmologist. I also borrow extensively by melding influences as disparate and powerful as Benjamin Britten, Pink Floyd, Olivier Messiaen and Mike Oldsfield! These items I have produced as an indie, and they are available only through my own company, Jabulani Music. Jabulani is a Zulu word meaning, among other things, ‘house of song’. I can provide more info through my email address (which you obviously have), because my website,, is about 7 years behind the times, my webmaster being an Irish Genius who, unfortunately, sometimes expects payment for his works, though often in the form of a bottle of single malt! I welcome your interest and would enjoy continuing our conversation! Tony

      • Thanks for the info; I’ll start at the website!

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