Poem of the week / William Blake on a weird Jerusalem
Would Blake have conjured today’s Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land?
And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time
William Blake (1757-1827)
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?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
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!
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.
Popularly known as “Jerusalem.” From the Preface to “Milton,” 1811.
May 28, 2014 is Jerusalem Day, which the Knesset declared a national holiday in 1988 to mark the establishment of Israeli control over the Old City and East Jerusalem in 1967. The Chief Rabbinate has designated Jerusalem Day as a “minor religious holiday” (special prayers but no restrictions on work, commerce or smoking; not a school holiday).
The 2014 observances begin the evening of May 27. Politicians will make the usual declarations about Israel’s eternal undivided capital, and flag-waving youths will march, sing and block traffic.
Last year, former Knesset speaker and current presidential candidate Reuven Rivlin wrote in Haaretz that “Jerusalem will be a contentious battlefield as long as Israeli society will continue to view itself as a battle arena instead of a meeting ground between faiths and worldviews. The hard-to-digest truth about Jerusalem is that this country may have been built by Zionists but not just for Zionists, and the reality is that it isn’t only a homeland for Jews.”
In addition to being a complex piece of disputed geography, Jerusalem is the endpoint of spiritual journeys for Jews, Christians and Muslims, a metaphor for peace and heavenly perfection – as in this poem by William Blake.
The first stanza evokes the legend that Jesus visited England when he was a young man. In the second, Blake excoriates the social, economic and spiritual situation in the England of his day – the “dark Satanic Mills” are either the factories of the industrial revolution or the established Anglican Church or both.
The poet opposed all forms of organized religion; his religious leanings were linked to spirituality and sexuality, and two of his earliest works were entitled “All Religions are One” and “There is No Natural Religion.”
In stanza three, Blake evokes Apollo’s bow of gold and Cupid’s arrows of desire alongside the vision of the chariot of fire in Ezekiel 1. The closing image is of a celestial city – arguably nothing like today’s terrestrial Jerusalem, where the term “Holyland” has for many become a synonym for all that is ugly and corrupt.
Despite Blake’s convictions, as set to music by Sir Hubert Parry, “Jerusalem” has become an anthem of the Anglican Church for state and religious occasions, though there is some controversy about its appropriateness.
*Bonus: All rise for “Jerusalem” at a royal wedding:
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