There's a ton of repetition in this poem. The speaker repeats sounds and words like it's going out of style. The word "England" shows up three times, the words "green" and "pleasant" each pop up twice, and of course there's the anaphora of the third stanza ("Bring me my […] Bring me my […] Bring me my"). We also get alliteration in lines 4 ("pleasant pastures"), 9 ("Bring […] Bow […] burning), and 14 ("sword sleep"). On top of all that, there are at least two lines that rhyme in each stanza (and four lines that rhyme in the third). Okay, so we've clearly got a poem that loves to repeat itself. It's almost kind of like an echo chamber.
What's the point, you ask? It's like this. The speaker wonders if Jerusalem was once built in England long ago, and he wonders if Jesus was there too (even though he wants this to be the case, he's still not totally sure). Anyway, he also wants Jerusalem to be built in the future: "Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand: / Till we have built Jerusalem" (14-15). In other words, he wants the future to be just like the past. He wants history to repeat itself. In order to communicate that idea sonically, he repeats words and phrases throughout the poem. Past equals future.
Besides talking about this neat little trick, we should probably also say a quick word about how the speaker's tone shifts. When he contemplates the past, he sounds a little doubtful, but doubtful in the "I really want to believe this happened" kind of way. The way he keeps saying "And did" while not using an actual question mark makes that clear. At the same time, the way the "And dids" rack up prepares us for the speaker's sudden call to action in the third stanza: "Bring me my bow of burning gold: / Bring me my arrows of desire." This is his Braveheart moment, that's for sure, and he concludes the poem in that same state of mind. Even though the latter half of the poem echoes the earlier half, the speaker's tone has shifted from doubt to confidence and power.
"Jerusalem" is one of those poems where the title isn't really the title. Actually, scratch that. It's one of those poems where the title wasn't really the title, but then became the title. Wait—huh? How does that work? Well, Blake first published the poem as part of the Preface to a much longer poem called Milton, named for this guy. As you can see here, the poem doesn't have a title and is just sort of there, right after a little confusing tirade labeled "The Preface." Check out the whole poem right here, if you dare.
Okay, so Blake never named the poem "Jerusalem" (and in fact he wrote a much longer poem called Jerusalem later on). Where did the title come from then? Well, the word occurs in the poem twice, but the poem was never really called "Jerusalem" until sometime around 1918-1920. (Nobody is really sure when or why, but it probably had something to do with the poem's focus on the spiritual vision embodied in the Biblical idea of Jerusalem).
Let's just assume for a minute that Blake did name the poem "Jerusalem," and ponder why this matters. The whole idea of Jerusalem is all over Blake's writings. By Jerusalem, Blake doesn't just mean some city in Israel, but rather the New Jerusalem, the holy, heavenly city where the true believers in God will dwell (with God) at the end of time. For Blake, Jerusalem is always the end goal, the summit of perfection, what he wants the world to become, the be-all end-all... you get the idea.
In "Jerusalem," Blake entertains the idea that maybe Jerusalem was once built in England before. If Jerusalem was there once, perhaps it could be there again? The world was once whole (Jerusalem once existed) and can be whole once more (with Jerusalem's return). Given the centrality of this concept to Blake's mythology and writings, and given that "Jerusalem" is like a miniature summation of that concept, it makes perfect sense, then, for this poem to be called "Jerusalem."
We're all over the place in this poem, and we're not just saying that. We've got references to "ancient time," to the English landscape (it's both cloudy and green), to the factories that were a part of that English landscape in Blake's day, and to something else that can only be described as a magical place. Let's get started then, shall we?
The most important thing to keep in mind is that even though the poem is called "Jerusalem" (remember, this is not Blake's title), the poem isn't really about the Jerusalem in Israel, but rather the New Jerusalem. Still, while the poem refers to this, we don't really get a lot in terms of description, so it's there more as the speaker's goal, hope, or desire (he wants the "setting" of the world to become the New Jerusalem).
The poem is really about England, and its many different faces. There are references to a peaceful, pastoral landscape ("pleasant pastures," "green & pleasant Land") and, of course, to England's notorious clouds. While England seems pretty enough in this poem, those clouds aren't just your regular old clouds. Toss in some "dark Satanic Mills," and you have a picture of a not-so-stellar England.
The Industrial Revolution was just getting started in Blake's day and while it was responsible for many technological advancements, it was also responsible for a fair share of problems too: poor working conditions, child labor, dirty and filth, overpopulation, and all kinds of other junk you can read about right here. The "dark Satanic mills" of "Jerusalem" symbolize the Industrial Revolution. The mills, and the clouds too, are the antithesis of the green pastures that represent the other side of England.
Okay, so good and bad England—now, where does all that divine light stuff come in? Well, the speaker suggests that the divine light of the New Jerusalem once shed some, ahem, light on England's cloudy hills, and he wants that light to come again. This is where all the stuff about a chariot of fire and a burning bow comes in (it reminds us of some heavenly battlefield, of the kind described here). The speaker conjures up a very heavenly, biblical setting because that's what he wants England to look like and because it is only with divinely inspired weapons (of the kind you would see in a battle of angels and devils) that such a change can happen.
Ladies and gentlemen, the man, the myth, the legend, the… wait, that's not right. The legend, the myth, the man? Nope, that's not right either. Wait, here it is: a man who's into myths and legends. That's the one we're looking for because, well, that's a great way to describe the speaker of this poem. The first half of the poem, you will recall, explores the possibility that Jesus once visited England nearly 1800 years before the poem's composition. What is more, the speaker even ponders whether Jerusalem itself (Blake's symbol for the most peaceful, holy, perfect place imaginable) was once built in England. In Blake's heyday, the whole Jesus-visited-England thing was sort of an urban legend, a popular myth or superstition. While the speaker doesn't come right out and endorse it, he's definitely willing to entertain the idea.
But why? The speaker also clearly has a social conscience. That little jab at the "dark Satanic mills" is a not-so-secret critique of the Industrial Revolution and all the filthy, dirty, horrible things that came along with it (child labor, poor working conditions, death—all sorts of other charming stuff). If Jesus once visited England, and shined some divine light on England's "cloudy hills," well then there's hope for the future (he may even come again). Rather than sit around and wait for Jesus (the Lamb of God) to come back, the speaker figures he might as well get the revolution started. He asks for his bow and arrow, and his spear, and his chariot of fire (it's all very biblical, folks), and while he doesn't say so directly, he's really asking for these weapons so he can start laying waste to all the bad things around him so Jerusalem can be built again (and eternal peace can reign supreme).
Well…. yeah, sort of. You see, the speaker is committed to a social revolution (remember, he says his sword will not sleep in his hand), but a revolution that isn't violent (forget the weapons for a minute). His refusal to cease from "Mental Fight" is really important because it balances out all the violence associated with weapons. The weapons are mostly symbolic, and the real war will be a war of ideas—a mental war in which changing one's perspective matters more than anything else (think about things like contemporary racism, and how the emphasis is on acceptance and tolerance, not taking swords and spears and attacking racists).
A God-fearing man, committed to social revolution, willing to entertain semi-mythical ideas, and fired up like there's no tomorrow? Hmm—there was once a real person who was pretty much exactly the same as the speaker of this poem, and his name was—wait for it—William Blake. Okay, okay, so we know technically the speaker and the poet are two different people, but with Blake, the rules can be broken a little bit (Blake would approve, since he was all about breaking down barriers and "melting apparent surfaces away").
Blake was a radical if there ever was one, and he was committed to bringing about the New Jerusalem by working to end things like poor working conditions, poverty, and just about everything else that he thought was simply no good. The guy wrote poems about the horrible conditions chimney sweepers dealt with, for example, so you can't go wrong by assuming that the speaker is, at the very least, Blake's close relative. Read more about his revolutionary politics here and here.
Rest assured amigos, this little poem is only a 4. That said, there are a few little kinks that make it just a little trickier than we like. For example, the poem's opening questions come literally out of nowhere, and "Huh?" is a normal reaction when you first read them. Then, of course, there's all that business about those mysterious feet, and the Lamb of God, and the Countenance Divine, and Jerusalem, and those funny weapons… okay, you get the idea. Even though this is a little strange, you can read the poem a few times and more or less figure it out.
With Blake, that's all you'll ever be able to do: more or less figure it out. He's an enigma, and his poetry never really gives you that sense of total understanding that we all crave. So make the most of it, enjoy the ride, and if some parts are a little difficult, just know that Blake wanted it that way. Feel better?
Jerusalem is all over Blake's poetry. It's literally everywhere. For example, the last illuminated book Blake wrote was a massive poem called Jerusalem (not to be confused with the little guy we're working with here). He talks about it in Milton (the poem with which "Jerusalem" was first printed) a whole lot, and talks about it even more in what is perhaps his densest work, The Four Zoas (not published during Blake's lifetime). If you want to get a feel for just how much Blake talks about Jerusalem, go here and type in the word Jerusalem (the site is a concordance, and will show you every occurrence of the word in Blake's work).
In this poem, Jerusalem refers to the New Jerusalem of the Book of Revelation (21:2), a special, holy city that descends from the sky to serve as the home of all the true believers in God for eternity. In "Jerusalem," it's pretty much a symbol of perfect peace and harmony. The speaker wants to get rid of all the "dark Satanic mills" and replace them with a much happier place: Jerusalem. In most of Blake's poetry, this is what Jerusalem often symbolizes—in one form or another.
Alright let's dig a little deeper into the nuts and bolts of this poem. Most, though not all, of the poem is written in a pattern called "iambic tetrameter." This means that each line contains four ("tetra-" means four) iambs, as you can see in line 1:
And did those feet in Ancient time
Alongside this mostly regular meter (there are a few small exceptions that we'll get to in just a second here), there is also a mostly regular rhyme scheme of ABCB, where each letter stands for a particular end rhyme. This means that, in each stanza (except the third, which we'll also get to in just a second), the second and fourth lines rhyme, and the other two do not.
Now let's get to those exceptions, which are mostly confined to the third stanza (that's the one with all the weapons in it). The speaker switches both the meter and the rhyme scheme. Instead of using all iambs, the speaker uses two spondees for the first two beats and two iambs to finish out the lines. We give you line 9:
Bring me my bow of burning gold
There's a whole lot of stress in this line, and by stress we mean emphasis—not the "I have a paper due to tomorrow, and I haven't started" kind of thing. The "heaviness" of the lines calls attention to them, and makes them sound louder, stronger, and more aggressive, almost as if they were part of a rallying cry to troops in battle. The meter complements the speaker's sudden resolution to commit himself to the task of building Jerusalem again in England.
As for the rhyme scheme, this stanza rhymes ABAB. The stanza is thus more compact. Each line has a partner, which makes the whole thing seem more "whole." If you compare this stanza to the other stanzas that rhyme ABCB, it feels like those other one have some loose ends (the A and C lines). The wholeness or completeness of the third stanza mimics the speaker's desire for there to be another Jerusalem, which is the definition of a complete, whole, peaceful, and holy city where all the divisions and tensions of the world are eliminated.
The sudden shift in the third stanza is part of the speaker's larger desire for change. He talks about how maybe, just maybe, Jerusalem was once built in England before, but now all trace of it has vanished and there are only "dark Satanic mills." The speaker wants to get rid of these mills. He wants change. The poem's formal changes (in meter and rhyme) reflect in miniature the speaker's desire for that change.
Okay, so this isn't a poem about warfare, but there are weapons all over the place. What's up with that? The entire third stanza is about weapons, and the speaker tosses in another reference to his sword in the final stanza for good measure. To be fair, the poem is kind of about warfare, but not your typical warfare. It's about waging war on an unjust society, and making the New Jerusalem a reality. For that to happen, and for all the "dark Satanic mills" to go away, some fighting is necessary. The fight is a mental fight, a change in perspective more or less, and so the weapons the speaker describes are really symbolic weapons, despite the fact that the speaker does veer towards Braveheart territory from time to time.
Well, since the poem is called "Jerusalem," we should expect that word at least to come up in the poem, right? Right? Yep—come up it sure does, twice. In the second stanza the speaker wonders if Jerusalem was once "builded" in England during Jesus' hypothetical visit there, and in the last stanza he talks about building Jerusalem again. Jerusalem here is really the New Jerusalem. In this poem, and in other Blake poems, the New Jerusalem is a symbol for perfection itself, a peaceful, perfect, holy city if there ever was one.
Blake loved to talk about prophecy, so much so that sometimes his longer works are referred to as "the prophetic books" (true story). Anyway, the speaker talks about Jesus in this poem (he's a prophet), and then there's a reference to Elijah (another prophet), and then, well, there's the speaker himself. He identifies himself with Elijah (the original rider of a chariot of fire), and implies that he's as special as Jesus and Elijah and has been singled out for a greater purpose. What purpose is that? To spearhead the building of Jerusalem, of course, eliminating the "dark Satanic mills" along the way.
We regret to inform you that there is no sex in this poem—total bummer, we know. It's a bit odd, because Blake isn't usually so reserved or shy when it comes to the dirty stuff. Maybe he just wasn't in the mood when he wrote this poem, or something like that. You'll just have to make do with some mild, implied violence (burning bows, flaming chariots, etc.).