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):