“Jerusalem” William Blake (1757-1827) and Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918)

This article was first published in the October 2016 issue of our Parish Magazine.

Which of us has not ever sung “Jerusalem”?

It is used as the “English” anthem at cricket and rugby matches, to celebrate English gold medals at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, at Mothers Union events, Women’s Institute meetings and conferences, the annual Labour Party conference, the last night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, and it is also chosen as a hymn at many weddings. It was used in the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, and in films including Chariots of Fire, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Calendar Girls, Goodnight Mr Tom, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Shameless, and a 2013 episode of Dr Who.

Many of us know that in 1916 Hubert Parry was commissioned to set part of Blake‘s poem “And did those feet in ancient time” to music, but Parry was not entirely comfortable with the political cause that needed it. A year later however, he was happy for it to be used by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in a concert, and indeed for it to become the Women Voters’ hymn. In 1928, when all women were finally granted the vote, Parry’s estate gave the copyright to the Women’s Institutes, who retained ownership until it entered the public domain in 1968. Parry deliberately scored “Jerusalem” for unison voices with organ accompaniment in order to facilitate mass singing.

The words are taken from a short poem that William Blake wrote as a preface to his epic “Milton a Poem“, from his “Prophetic Books”. You probably know the words by heart, but here they are:

  • 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 & pleasant Land.

There are many proposed interpretations of these words, and a look at the relevant Wikipedia page will give you the detail. My favourite is that the poem refers to Jesus’ ‘missing’ years that are not documented in any of the gospels. It suggests that Jesus travelled to Glastonbury with Joseph of Arimathea. ‘Jerusalem’ is taken to refer to heaven, and that wherever Jesus visits, heaven is created there. This is in sharp contrast with the ‘dark satanic mills’ of the industrial revolution. There is also a direct reference to the story of Elijah being taken to heaven in a chariot of fire in 2 Kings 2:11.

There are many, many recordings of “Jerusalem” online for you to listen to, including this one.

Carol P

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