Amazingly talented, incredibly well-read, a bit of a raving lunatic, 100% genius—you could swap out some of those phrases for others and still end up with a pretty accurate description of William Blake. The guy really was a strange bird, no doubt, but an incredibly talented one. He could write poetry, he could draw, he could paint, he could make these cool etchings on metal plates... and he was convinced he could talk to the ghost of his dead brother.
Blake's many talents and eccentricities are what still make him, nearly 200 years after his death, a compelling British Romantic writer. A working-class poet if there ever was one, Blake made his living mostly by doing engravings and other assorted art projects, writing poetry whenever he wasn't doing all that other stuff. Now that we think about it, poetry isn't quite the right word to describe Blake's unique art, which is actually a more like an early version of what we now call multimedia.
What do we mean by that? Let's illustrate with an example. Check this out. That, Shmoopers, is a page from one of Blake's illuminated books, works of poetry that feature colorful images alongside lines of verse You can look at all of Blake's illuminated books right here. You see, Blake thought of himself as both a poet and a drawer-engraver-painter. He believed in unifying these different mediums in the multimedia extravaganzas that are his major works.
In 1808, Blake published a very long illuminated book called Milton, which, yes, was named after the British poet John Milton and is actually about him… in a weird Blakean way. The poem is really, really complex, and nobody really understands it completely, but basically the poem is about how Milton is up in Heaven and needs to come back to Earth to fix a bunch of mistakes he made during his first lifetime. How does he get back to earth? He takes the form of a comet and then enters William Blake's foot. Yes, we just said Milton comes back to earth by entering William Blake's foot (in the poem, that is). We know, it's wild. If you're dying for more, head here and here.
The reason we have to tell you about Milton is because the preface to this beast of a poem contains "Jerusalem," best known nowadays as a popular British hymn, and England's unofficial national anthem. If Milton is about the second coming of John Milton, "Jerusalem" is about the re-establishment of, well, Jerusalem. You could say the poem is about the second coming of the city that for Blake symbolizes holiness, peace, perfection, etc. The poem is perfect as part of a preface because its themes foreshadow the larger themes that Blake explores at great length in Milton.
Now, before we let you go, we have to cover a few other small things. First, when Blake talks about Jerusalem, he doesn't mean the city in Israel in its modern form. No, no. For Blake, Jerusalem is always the New Jerusalem described in Chapter 21 of the Book of Revelation, a beautiful golden city that will descend from the sky at the end of time and serve as the eternal home for God and all his true followers. The New Jerusalem in Blake's poetry is what results when all the divisions and fractures of the world are finally healed and the world is made whole again.
We have lots more to say about all this stuff in our "Summary" section and down the page in "Why Should I Care?" but before we head in that direction we need to point out a small, but crucial detail. If you see "Jerusalem" in quotes like this, then you know the reference is to the short poem we are discussing. However, Blake wrote another work called Jerusalem, which is really, really, really long and difficult (Blake never actually gave the shorter poem a title, but it's now referred to as "Jerusalem"). When the larger work is at issue, you will see italics. Got it? Good. Now all we need to do is to dive right into the mad and marvelous mind of a poetic genius.
Have you ever had a grandparent or even a parent—or an aunt, or an uncle—who is convinced that everything used to be so much better than it is now? You know the type: the person who, when they watch television or listen to you tell stories about what's happening at school, always ends up sighing and saying something like "Sheesh, what's the world coming to? Back in my day, this kind of garbage didn't happen, and everything was just a lot better than it is now." These types of people are a little on the negative side, sure, but they're also a little on the positive side, because they want the world to be like it was, and in their mind that means they want the world to be a better place.
Let's just say your grandpa is like this. Let's also say that, one day, he sees a news story about how a kid was bullied so badly in school that he and his parents had to pack up and move to Canada. Let's next say that your grandpa grumbles something under his breath, leaves the room, and comes back five minutes later with his World War II uniform on—complete with his canteen, knife, and rifle. You look at him puzzlingly, and he responds by saying, "What? I can't take this anymore! I'm gonna do something about it!" After that, he turns around abruptly and leaves the house.
This is the modern version of what William Blake is up to in "Jerusalem." For the speaker of this poem, the really great "back then" is some "ancient time" in England when Jesus perhaps walked and where the holy, peaceful, perfect city Jerusalem was built. In the speaker's mind, England was a different place then. There weren't any "dark Satanic mills" and life was just… better. Looking around at the world in 1808, the speaker is disgusted, so disgusted that he calls for his bow, arrows, spear, chariot, and sword (translation: the World War II uniform) and says that he and his comrades are going to rebuild Jerusalem.
Now, even though he has all these weapons, and even though our hypothetical grandfather has his WWII outfit on, neither one of those guys really intends to do anything remotely violent. The weapons are symbolic more than anything. They're just for show, there to let people know that these guys mean business and that they think of the work of social justice and changing the world as a battle, albeit one that is a "mental fight" more than anything. Non-violent resistance, changes in perspective—these are the things that matter most to the speaker (and your grandpa).
And when you think about it, they probably also matter to you, too. Ever get wistful for those long-lost days when life was so much more carefree and rewarding? Yeah, we thought as much. Well, there's no need to go digging around in your closet for your elementary school digs, just check out this poem.
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Want just the text, without the crazy pictures? This one's for you.
When Jesus Went to England
Wow, we had no idea the story had such a long and complicated history.
New Jerusalem News
Here's the biblical interpretation, complete with quotes and everything.
"Jerusalem," the Anthem
Wow, we had no idea this song was so important for English sports.
The Royal Treatment
Dig this video of "Jerusalem" being sung at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.
Jesus, The Lost Years
Everybody loves a good mystery, and this is sure to be fascinating.
Billy Bragg's Take
This is a dreamier version for sure, but it'll do—it'll do.
Blake in Thought
What are you thinking about there, sir?
Sir Hubert Parry
This is a picture of the guy who wrote the music for the musical version of "Jerusalem" that is so popular in England.
Here's a picture of the cottage in Felpham where Blake lived from 1800-1803 and where he began to write Milton.
This is a short article about a film directed by a Church of Scotland minister.
This great article is about an art exhibition Blake held—that his critics really didn't like.
"Jerusalem" for the Brits
This short article explains the importance of "Jerusalem" to the British people.
If you want the whole illuminated book, drop some coin on this bad boy.
If literary biography is your thing, you can't go wrong with this one.