Poetry in Context: “And did those feet in ancient time”

Have you heard the rousing hymn “Jerusalem”? It’s based on William Blake’s poem “And did those feet in ancient time,” which incorporates the legend that Jesus visited England in his youth. The poem also displays Blake’s resistance to the Industrial Revolution.

The Poem

And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands 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 Englands green & pleasant Land.

Publication

“And did those feet in ancient time” was published in the preface of Blake’s epic Milton: A Poem. According to The William Blake Archive, “Blake etched forty-five plates for Milton in relief, with some full-page designs in white-line etching, between c. 1804 (the date on the title page) and c. 1811.” The Archive includes scans of four copies of Milton, though the Preface is only present in Copies A and B, both printed c. 1811.

Copy A has been held by the British Museum since 1859.

Copy B is held by the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery in San Marino, California. It was bought by Huntington for $9000 in 1911. Read details of its provenance here.

Music

“And did those feet in ancient time” was set to music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916. It appears that the song became known as “Jerusalem” around 1818. Sir Edward Elgar re-scored the work for  a larger orchestra in 1922.

“Jerusalem” has remained popular over the decades as an anthem and hymn, used on such occasions as Women’s Institute meetings, cricket and rugby games, the 2012 Summer Olympics, and the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton.

(Did you catch that the title of the classic movie Chariots of Fire was taken from this poem?)

Do you have a favourite poem you’d like me to write about next?

4 thoughts on “Poetry in Context: “And did those feet in ancient time”

  1. Lori says:

    I love this poem and the hymn and all the cultural baggage and legend that goes with it. It’s bonkers but fascinating. In the early Middle Ages there was a story that Joseph of Arimathea brought Jesus to visit England as a boy, and that after the crucifixion he was entrusted with the Holy Grail, which he later sent to England with his son. This is how the Grail Quest entered the King Arthur legend. It’s so funny to me that the English still sing this hymn at every great occasion — the dark Satanic mills and all.

    1. M.E. Bond
      M.E. Bond says:

      There is so much more I could have researched and written about, but I was pressed for time! Maybe I’ll have to write a follow-up post someday.

  2. Beverly troup says:

    That Jesus went to Britain is an idea firmly entrenched in the Cornwall area. First of all, his friendship with a Joseph of Arimathea had to be a strong one for Joseph to give up his tomb for Jesus. Next, there are stories of Joseph being wealthy and one of the ways to wealth in those days was in the tin business. The good tin mines were in Cornwall .
    During the 18 missing years in Jesus life from 12 to 30 years of age, it is possible that He traveled to England with Joseph. There are many stories in the region about his trips there. One time he planted his staff in the ground and it grew into a thorn tree which is still there -I have seen it. The hymn Jerusalem tells of these stories and thus is an important history lesson about that and the terrible times of the Industrial revolution, and the tremendous hope we have of a transformation of our society.
    As a child growing up in England, we sang Jerusalem often in school. I love it still.

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