Blake's Battle to Build Jerusalem
’Jerusalem’, by William Blake, from the preface of ‘Milton a Poem’, first printed in 1804, was originally called ‘And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time’. It became the anthem ‘Jerusalem’, with music written by Sir Hubert Parry, in 1916 and is often considered to be the British Anthem. The story that a young Jesus, accompanied by his uncle Joseph of Arimathea, travelled to England and visited Glastonbury is linked to the idea in the Book of Revelation of the Second Coming, wherein Jesus establishes a new ‘Jerusalem’.
On a simple level, Blake implies that a visit of Jesus would briefly create Heaven in England, in the midst of the ‘dark Satanic Mills’ thrown up by the Industrial Revolution. But the four questions of the poem are largely rhetorical: they create the void which only faith can fill. And of course for Blake, faith filled that void emphatically in the final stanza.
Blake was actively interested in social and political events all his life, but in common with others was often forced to resort to cloaking his social idealism and political statements in Protestant mystical allegory. On one level, the poem expresses his desire for radical change without overt sedition. In the year before ‘Jerusalem’s first publication, Blake had been charged at Chichester with high treason for having 'uttered seditious and treasonable expressions' but was acquitted. Treason at that time could easily lead to a death sentence.
But ‘Jerusalem' is more than a disguised political treatise. Blake was writing at a time when the culture was at the cusp of a profound change, mirrored in the dramatic social revolutions of the day but not limited to them. The old Mediaeval realities of a world in which God really had walked the earth were being thrown more and more into question by the advancement of the Enlightenment and its accompanying scientific revolution. Even the landscape was being transformed as the underlying paradigm upon which the society was founded shifted from participative to divisive: land enclosures and the building of dark and dehumanising factories were a direct result of this shift. So Blake’s rhetorical outburst of the first stanza is not so much a social protest as a cry for the recovery of a bygone innocence or holiness:
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?
The apparent historical fact of Jesus’ disappearance from records between the ages of about 12 and 30 had produced the speculative notion that he may have arrived on British shores with Joseph of Arimathea. But Blake stretches this into more than just a part of that legend. In the second stanza, the holy presence is no longer in England in ‘ancient time’, but right then, in Blake’s life, when the ‘dark Satanic mills’ had arisen (one not far from where he lived):
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
This isn’t a sentimental reflection about a long-distant past but an immediate challenge. It is romantic in the extreme to imagine that God physically strolled about the English landscape at some point, but Blake implies that he could not be and is not present in this corrupt and Satanic environment. The fact that Jerusalem poetically represented the perfect city with no discord, equality and was in essence, a utopia, is almost an oxymoron when juxtaposed with the ‘Satanic Mills’, destroyers of peace and serenity. The Industrial Revolution was mechanising the lives of ordinary people; the City that was being built around the poet was clearly not going to be heavenly. Blake responds to his own rhetoric in the strongest possible way:
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!
Repetition and the short, emphatic lines are intended to stir emotion and prompt action. This is an allusion to the biblical verses from Kings, the story of Elijah, powerful prophet of Old Testament, who is taken on to Heaven on a chariot of fire. Elijah brings divine wrath down upon the sinful world. Blake’s intention is to destroy these heresies - but interestingly, his arrows are ‘arrows of desire’, like those of Cupid. In the next stanza, the poet claims that he will fight:
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green and pleasant Land.
But it is a ‘Mental Fight’, and his sword, far from creating bloodshed, seems to be something that he will use to build Jerusalem. His weapons, then, are creative rather than warlike.
The dilemma was that social unrest and revolution did not produce answers, as Blake had seen with the events of the French Revolution a decade or so before the poem. Passive acquiescence, though, was not an option as the Industrial Revolution ploughed over people’s lives. If the world was to be restored to its former innocence, and the battle thereby won, it had to begin mentally - the poem was, therefore, not so much an anthem but a call to action by the poet aimed at the poet himself, a declaration of intention and a vow that he would continue in his efforts to defy the splitting apart of God’s kingdom by Satan.