How to keep your spirits up: Jerusalem by William Blake



Clouded hills outside Glossop, one of the birthplaces of the industrial revolution

Thinking on George Saunders talking about the space his childhood Catholicism opened up, leaving permanently a place for mystery in him, and my own thought religious poetry had done the same for me – particularly George Herbert, Milton, Dante, Wordsworth. This morning as I flipped though the Oxford Book of English Verse (Gardener) I came up  the section of poems by William Blake and thought, maybe I’ll read one of these… I can only take Blake in certain ways, on certain occasions – he’s not a natural fellow traveler for me. Except ‘Jerusalem’.

This poem I learned as a girl at Grammar School, those morning assemblies when they tried to instill ethos into us, through prayer, hymns, the swish of the sixth-formers academic gowns, the iron haircuts and vicious glances of the senior teachers,  Uniform check, the headmistress  exhortation. The hymns worked on me, particularly this one.  I remember sitting in Sefton Park with my friend Lorna (were the others doing games? Yes, possibly, they were playing tennis, but we were not, would not ever be…) We sat under the great plane trees on one of the big meadows near the old tennis courts and sang this out, very loud. Couple of times over. We meant – **** you, Girls Grammar School!  **** you, Iron haired uniform obsessed teachers, one day  everything will be different.  When I read it now, the third verse  still raises the revolutionary spirit. It is, in the best sense, encouraging.


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.

I never  know whose feet they are – Jesus’s or maybe Moses’, maybe the feet of all the Israelites, building Jerusalem?   There is something curiously literally in starting with the feet. This first verse  is connecting then (Biblical times) with now (the dark satanic mills – but  did Blake see early industrial mills? he lived in London, not Glossop.

I just  read it as  –  there was a movement to build a new world then, and we must ask, was it part of our history too? is God, or the Spirit, or the Spirit of change, everywhere and in all time? The first two stanzas pose four questions, and they don’t really have answers. It’s more about the mash-up of  genres, of the  putting side by side two very different views – ‘countenance divine’/’dark satanic mills’.

‘And was Jersalen builded here?’ Perhaps the answer is ‘not yet’?

Because in stanza three Blake lets rip with revolutionary zeal for making a new world, new heaven , new earth. It is a fight, this mission, you are going to have to be a soldier to do it.  And the tools, the weapons, though as real as ‘feet’ – bow, arrows, spear, chariot and later, sword – are all spiritual. They seem  gifts from God (‘O clouds unfold) and yet can a  gift be demanded, look at all those ‘Bring me’s’ ?

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.

When I read this, this list of demands feels like demand on self. It’s an incantation. It’s interesting that it sounds like a King, calling servants to arm him, but these are words that we mutter (or  sing) to ourselves. At least, I do, when facing some aspect of a difficult day. When I said a week or so ago that poetry was like a kind of CBT, this is the kind of thing I was thinking of: can the repetition of the words, the drawing of such words into my mind, help create the new mind that has these attributes – isn’t this the kind of thing a psychologist would call an affirmation?

The final verse shows that all this – history, the reality of feet tramping, heaven, the great weapons – are all part of the inner life of William Blake  – it’s ‘Mental Fight’ we are engaged in.

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.

I like the fact that after and ‘I’ and  so many ‘my’s’ the final pronoun is plural – ’til we have built’. He has to fight inside himself, mentally, as we all do, but that is going to have some outside effect, connecting him to others engaged in the same build.

Feel like I’ve done a hundred press ups with this inside me.


3 thoughts on “How to keep your spirits up: Jerusalem by William Blake

  1. Jamie March 20, 2017 / 9:50 am

    Just the sort of inspiration I need this morning. Thank-you.

  2. Hw March 21, 2017 / 8:33 am

    I value our daily “aliquots” of poetry and reflection. It feels like there is a tree with multiple wrapped, almost externally indentical parcels – no, presents. One for each day – I hope for many many days. We, the reader, have no idea of the content until we open our present/email, but we do know, I definitely know, that the words and poem will be with me for some time – days at least, but also they seem to settle permanently, like pleasant silt, in my brain.
    The poem choices and thoughts so often resonate.
    I really appreciate my daily gift. Thank you.

    • drjanedavis March 21, 2017 / 11:24 pm

      Thank you very much for saying so – much appreciated

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