Updated: Jan 28, 2021
Text: William Blake (1757-1827) Tune: C. Herbert H. Parry (1848-1918)
1. And did those feet in ancient time Walk upon England's mountain green? And was the holy Lamb of God On England's pleasant pastures seen?
2. And did the countenance divine Shine forth upon our clouded hills? And was Jerusalem builded here Among those dark satanic mills?
3. 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!
4. 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.
A shining evening in early September, the early 1970s, the sable sky of rural Iowa filled with stars sweeping over me as I drove home to Decorah. I had been doing an NEH seminar in Eldora, talking about poetry to church people, Kiwanis, even the boys at the Reform School. I was exhausted.
I twiddled with the car radio tuning knob. (This was long before FM stations were received on car radios.) I got a faint staticky hint of a concert that ebbed in and out as I approached the signal. Then I heard it, it was the Proms closing concert from London. It was the last set of numbers, with "Rule, Brittania," "Land of Hope and Glory," and then clear as a bell, "And did those feet in ancient time."Jerusalem." I had never heard anything like it before.
This year, because of the pandemic, we have not had the pleasure of hearing the almost six weeks of concerts that make up the Proms. It is an amazing time. Orchestras from around the world come to play, with singers, trios, quartets, and soloists of the very top ranks as well. London and its environs are packed with music lovers who can go to a concert every night, if not a couple a day. Those are formal and long haired as can be. But the night of the Proms is something altogether other. People gather around the world to watch and sing along with the group in Royal Albert Hall. The concert is all about classics that are popular. The last part of the concert is a sing-along of patriotic songs concluding with “God Save the Queen” done more and more reverently as everyone realizes what a treasure she is. Still every kind of noisemaker that can be safely used in a crowded Royal Albert Hall adds to the ruckus. I never miss it now on public radio—it is usually the first weekend in September. Jerusalem is what I want to hear.
William Blake’s poem, written as a preface to a very strange poem, Milton, became a patriotic anthem after Hubert Parry’s musical setting.
There is a persistent story in old English annals that Jesus visited England with Joseph of Arimethea after his resurrection. Blake used that in his poem. While there is nothing in the Bible to suggest that, we don’t know where Jesus was every moment after his resurrection until his ascension so there is room for such stories, outlandish as they may seem.
However, it is entirely possible that a Roman soldier who had witnessed the crucifixion and become a Christian ended up in Britain serving in the Roman army which conquered Britain in 43 AD. Early Britons were ruled by the Romans some ten years after Jesus' crucifixion and the connection with Rome was close. In fact, by 49 AD, a colony for retired Roman soldiers was built at what is now Colchester. .
The hymn does not say Jesus came to Britain, but it asks questions: "And did those feet in ancient time," etc. Blake lived at the time when people in England were leaving the farm for the city to work in factories, the “dark, satanic mills” where they suffered the privations of cramped cities, far away from the green and pleasant lands of rural England. Mothers and fathers would leave their very young children at home to fend for themselves, even making infants drunk with gin to keep them asleep during their long working hours. It was horrific and Blake wrote against those conditions many times. The hope expressed in this hymn—that Blake could help to build in England a new Jerusalem, like that envisioned in the Bible, is thrilling—and well set in Parry’s tune.
Hearing these words echo out of the raspy radio on my yellow Gremlin as I rode east through the dark night was a moment out of time that still comes back when I hear it again. So much hope, so much fun! So much life.
William Blake was one of the strangest geniuses of the English poetic scene. An evangelical Christian, a gifted artist and poet, he kept constructing worlds in poetry as well as etchings that fascinate and charm, especially his lovely Songs of Innocence and Experience. “Little lamb who made thee…” But his epics, like Milton, Kenneth Clark in his Civilization series called a muddle. Blake's best work to my mind are his illustrations of the Divine Comedy by Dante. They continue to fascinate me every time I read Dante.
Hubert Parry was one of the great English composers of his day. This is his greatest piece and by far most popular. He was still actively composing music when he was struck down by the Spanish Influenza October 8, 1918. The hymn has been sung or used as background in many films, most famously "Chariots of Fire" as the title of the movie was taken from the poem.
The Proms 2012
Chariots of Fire
Kate and William’s wedding
St. George’s Chapel congregation singing