Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Songs From Poems: Blake's Jerusalem

Glastonbury Tor
Glastonbury Tor

Billy Bragg: Blake's Jerusalem


The poem we know as Jerusalem is William Blake's 1808 preface to his longer epic, Milton: A Poem, and is based on a legend that Jesus Christ visited Glastonbury, England, during his lifetime. This visit is reflected in the four questions that begin the poem, and Blake's conclusion is that if true, it would have resulted in a temporary heaven on earth. It concludes with the exhortation to recreate this state once more in England. In other words, it's a poetic alternate-universe fanfic of the Bible.

The poem languished until 1916, when it was set to music, a move meant to encourage the British fighting spirit at a time when World War 1 wasn't going well (see also Darius' description this week of Yeats' Slouching Towards Bethlehem from the same time and place). Since then it has become enormously popular song in England, often used publicly as one of several unofficial national anthems. I have to say, it's turned into an enormous earworm for me ever since I decided to post it.

Billy Bragg includes this version on his overtly political 1990 CD, The Internationale. Bragg is an English socialist punk-folkie. As was Blake, by all accounts. Hearing this song in Bragg's pronounced East London accent is quite fitting, I think, especially the line about the "dark Satanic mills." Clearly, Blake wasn't much of a supporter of the Industrial Revolution.

Jerusalem by William Blake

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.

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