Over the past few days this site has received a huge number of visitors and requests for comment. There have been numerous requests from radio stations in England and abroad to participate in phone-in shows, and requests for quotes and commentary from print and digital media.
One such request received today was from a Turkish agency who asked:
What is the significance of this poem for you?
What does Jerusalem as a city mean for you?
Does your preference for this poem have any relation with the importance given to Jerusalem as a city?
I dashed off a response and then thought that I would share it here because this belief that Jerusalem refers to an actual place seems widespread, even among the English.
The Jerusalem referred to in Blake’s work is a metaphor for a better place (heaven on earth). It does not refer to the Jerusalem in Israel but to a mythical time long ago when people lived in harmony with each other. In the song Jerusalem Blake is suggesting that we build this new Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land. For a full understanding you would need to read Blake’s other works in which he constructs his own mythology around Albion and Jerusalem.
The opening lines refer to the legend that Jesus visited England as a child with Joseph of Arimethea. During Blake’s lifetime this was a popular belief propagated by a group called the ‘British Israelites’ who also believed that the British were one of the lost tribes of Israel. Depending on your perspective you can answer Blake’s Questions with a Yes or a No.
I don’t believe in God, I doubt that Jesus visited England, and I don’t believe that Blake’s Jerusalem ever existed, so my answers would all be No.
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon Englands mountains green: No
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen! No
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills? No
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills? No
But the take home message here, for me at least, is that whether or not Jesus visited England, we are blessed with a ‘green and pleasant’ land and should strive to rebuild Jerusalem here. This is a call to human agency – ‘Till we have built Jerusalem’ – rather than an appeal to God’s charity.
The ‘Dark Satanic Mills’ that Blake refers to are most often taken to be the factories and workhouses of the industrial revolution. Some academics believe that they refer to the orthodox churches of the Establishment or to Oxford and Cambridge universities. I like to believe that Blake was referring to all these and also, in a more abstract sense, to the ‘mills of the mind’ – the calculating rationalism that had moved people away from the spirituality that would make a new Jerusalem possible.
In summary the poem/song is a call to make England a better place. The great thing about it, for me, is that it is so open to interpretation. It is full of Christian imagery but many non-Christians love it because they can answer in the negative, and it’s a call to human agency rather than a call to God to save or protect us. And as for the dark satanic mills, today they could be call centres, the Houses of Parliament or social media.
Jerusalem as a city means nothing to me personally, I’m an atheist. Having said that I would very much like to visit because it looks like a fascinating and beautiful place.
Jerusalem is head and shoulders above the other contenders for the crown, in my opinion. Land of Hope and Glory is a fantastic tub-thumping anthem but it is an imperialistic song about making Britain’s empire ‘wider still and wider’, and it includes a direct appeal to God to make us mightier. For those reasons it should be discounted or rewritten. I Vow to Thee my Country is beautiful but it smacks of chauvinism.
But that is just my opinion. If you would like your opinion to appear on this site please follow the instructions on our Facebook post.