And Did Those Feet In Ancient Time by William Blake

(The text of the poem can be found here.)

I admit to trying to read this more than 30 times and failing to even come close to what I was hoping to accomplish. I wanted to sound like a General. I would have accepted sounding like a Sergeant. I had made jokes to Maribou about how if, when she came home, I was shouting “NOR SHALL MY SWORD SLEEP IN MY HAND”, that everything was cool, I was just doing my next poem. Well, I didn’t even get halfway to what I wanted the poem to sound like. (My favorite take, still not even a C-, can be found here.)

William Blake is one of those awesome creators that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Shakespeare or Goethe. Amazingly prolific, exceptionally gifted, and insightful decades ahead of his time. A brilliant poet, a magnificent artist… He’s the best of the Romantics, if you ask me. (Check out his wiki page here… be sure to scroll down and read about his death. I was struck by envy.) Personally, I think that his greatest work is his illustrated “Milton: A Poem”. It’s absolutely mind-blowing and you can read the whole thing here (I prefer D to the others but I could see how someone might say that C was easier to read).

Heck, there’s a youtube out there that does a comparison of the whole thing to a beautiful song. Check it out if only to get an idea of Blake’s amazing art… and, after you’re done, we’ll get back to scratch the surface of the poem with his preface.

And now the Preface… Arthurian Legend has it that Jesus and Joseph of Arimathea visited Britain during Jesus’s “Lost Years” (and that Joseph’s son came back later on with The Holy Grail) and this poem is used as a meditation on that theory and then as a call to action. Jesus was here… we should build Jerusalem here (as opposed to those “dark satanic mills” we keep building).

When this little preface was printed smack dab in the middle of WWI as part of an anthology put together by Robert Bridges (the British Poet Laureate), Bridges saw that the preface would make for a perfect hymn and requested one of his friends to put it to music. Morale was slipping, you see. They wanted something to raise morale. Something properly British. This is what they got. As I’m sure you’ve seen, it took off. It’s now one of the hymns sung at such festivities as The Royal Wedding.

And as much as I love the poem and as much as I love the hymn, there’s a bit of an undercurrent to it that isn’t quite pleasant to my modern sensibility. You can hear echoes of The British Empire in the chords. You can hear the sabers rattle a little bit. Indeed, the first time I looked for “Jerusalem” on youtube, I thought I’d find Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s version (banned in England at the time, by the way) but instead found this:

This is a song that was written to help a country win a war and you cannot help but hear that in the chords.

I mean, honestly, before I started researching this poem, I just thought it was a lovely poem with a lovely hymn attached but, after getting elbows deep in it, I hear the war. The other day, in Mike Schilling’s “Heavenly” thread, we were discussing such things as “songs that have ruined lives” and dhex astutely pointed out that the National Anthem was one such song.

In that vein, I’d say that “Jerusalem” is another… which is such a strange place to end up from such a wonderful beginning.

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18 thoughts on “And Did Those Feet In Ancient Time by William Blake

  1. In the summer of 2000, the Metropolitan Museum did a wonderful exhibit of Blake’s drawings and designs.

    “Dark Satanic Mills” probably refers to the Albion Flour Mills, one of the first Industrial factories in England and the world. Probably the harbringer of the Industrial revolution. Blake was a pastoralist utopian at heart and he would have distrusted the sheet nature of the mill and what it was able to do. Since the poem is allegedly about Jesus visiting England, he wonders how such a holy place could be so close to such an evil thing. How did England descend from pastoral and green glory to something dank, dark, industrial and soul-crushing. This is not a poem as an ode to progress or markets.

    If you did research, the Chariots of Fire refer to how Elijah entered heaven in the Old Testament. The narrator of the poem is being asked to be taken to Heaven or he is asking for a Chariot of Fire to help him destroy the Dark Satanic Mills of the Industrial Revolution.

    I interpret the poem as an ode and urging to return to a rural and simple life.


  2. But did Blake have a vision that he’d inspire a couple orchestral psychedelic jazz albums in the 60’s, which would go on to be sampled like mad in 90’s hip-hop & electronic music?


  3. “Piper” is a song of “Bosco”. The lyrics are extracted from two William Blake’s poems (“Introduction” and “The Shepherd” from his book “Songs of Innocence and experience”). The audio is from one of the concerts they did in a tour around Ibiza. The video is made with footage from that tour.


  4. Also, there’s the Kinks’ 20th Century Man:

    This is the twentieth century,
    But too much aggravation
    It’s the age of insanity,
    What has become of the green pleasant fields of Jerusalem?


  5. There’s a movement to make Jerusalem the National Anthem of England. Now, I mean, you can say that that is the equivalent of saying “there’s a movement to make ‘We Will Rock You’ the National Anthem of the USA” which is to say that just because the sentence is true doesn’t mean that it’s interesting but we’re not talking about a group of crazies out in the middle of nowhere.

    There’s a group of crazies out in the middle of London.


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