The poem opens with the speaker wondering whether Jesus once came to England, whether the Lamb of God was seen, and whether he brought any of his famous divine light with him. The speaker also then wonders if Jerusalem was once built in England, before deciding to ask for his bow and arrow, his spear, and his chariot of fire. He will continue his "Mental Fight," his sword will sleep in his hands, and together with some amigos, he will build Jerusalem in England again.
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green:
- The speaker opens the poem with a question (don't worry that there's not a question mark there yet, it'll probably show up later).
- He asks if "those feet" walked upon England's green mountains in ancient times.
- The real question is, whose feet is the speaker talking about? Some ancient English king, such as King Arthur?
- We're not gonna mince words, Shmoopers: we have no idea who the speaker is talking about just yet, but it's obviously somebody who lived a long time ago (in "ancient" times).
- Let's move on in this first stanza so we can figure out the solution to this little riddle.
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England's pleasant pastures seen!
- The speaker is clearly in an interrogatory mood.
- He now asks if the "holy Lamb of God" was on England's "pleasant pastures." (Note the funky word order in this stanza, folks.)
- We definitely have to go over a few things here.
- First off, what or who is the Lamb of God? We'll give you a hint, it's not this metal band from Virginia. Nope, "Lamb of God" is a phrase that first appears in the Gospel of John in the New Testament. (You can read more about why Jesus is called the Lamb of God right here if you'd like.) All you need to know for our purposes is that the speaker of this poem is clearly referring to Jesus, the sacrificial "lamb" who died for all mankind's sins (or so the Christian teaching goes).
- Okay so he's definitely talking about Jesus in lines 3-4, but do "those feet" also belong to Jesus, too? It's a bit hard to say at this point, but all signs point to a big, gigantic, enormous "yes."
- So, why is the speaker asking if Jesus walked among the hills of England in ancient times? Didn't Jesus live somewhere in what is now Israel?
- Actually, there was a popular legend in England in Blake's day that held that Jesus visited England with his uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, sometime between the ages of 12 and 30 (the so-called "lost years").
- It sounds kind of bogus, sure, but there are plenty of scholars who have been willing to take the idea seriously, as you can see in this documentary and in this book.
- The origins of this little legend are a little unclear, but being a mythologizer himself, Blake was willing to entertain all kinds of ideas. In Milton, A Poem, for example (the larger work to which "Jerusalem" is a preface), the British poet John Milton is up in Heaven, but then travels to earth in the form of a comet and enters Blake's foot. In the poem, Milton is clearly a Christ-like figure, and he comes back to England to redeem the errors he made the first time around (these errors are complicated and unclear, so we'll just leave it at that). Blake is the vehicle through which Milton is able to reenter the "real" world and fix everything he messed up.
- Keeping all this in mind, it makes sense that Blake would explore the legend of Jesus traveling to England in "ancient time" in a poem that is about a guy (Milton) whom Blake sees as similar to Jesus. The Jesus of "Jerusalem" visiting England is a parallel for the John Milton Blake describes in the poem.
- (You can read more about Blake's Milton right here if you'd like. Be warned: the poem is long, complicated, confusing, maddening, and overall a very difficult slog. Don't worry, though, Blake wanted it that way. It's not you, it's him—seriously.)
- Before we go on, let's say a few things about the form of "Jerusalem":
- We've got four lines in each of the poem's four stanzas. These are called quatrains. Each line in the quatrain is written in iambic tetrameter, which means each line contains four iambs.
- We'll have more to say about the form and meter of this poem over in… "Form and Meter," so if you're dying for a more thorough analysis, head over there.
- For now, though, let's continue with the poem…
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
- The second stanza continues with the questions.
- This time, the speaker asks if the "Countenance Divine" shone upon England's "clouded hills" (maybe like these).
- "Countenance" is another word for face, so the speaker is asking if Jesus' divine face showed itself among England's cloudy hills. This is just another way of asking what the speaker has already asked before: "Did you, divine Lamb of God, show yourself here in England in ancient times?"
- The speaker imagines Jesus' face as bright and shiny, in contrast to the typically cloudy, gloomy English landscape
- The idea is that the "real" world is a dark, unpleasant place, desperately in need of divine light.
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
- Finally, the speaker asks a question that isn't a version of "did Jesus come to England?".
- He wonders if Jerusalem was built "here," in England, among "these dark Satanic Mills."
- First things first: don't worry about that word "builded." The speaker just means "built."
- Second, what's with the reference to Jerusalem, and what's with those "Satanic Mills" anyway?
- Both Jerusalem and Satanic mills are very common figures in Blake's poetry. They appear in pretty much all of Blake's major works.
- As for Jerusalem, yes, it is a city in Israel, but that's not what the speaker is talking about here.
- He's talking about the biblical New Jerusalem described in Chapter 21 of the Book of Revelation.
- According to Christian theology, at the end of time the earth and heavens will be destroyed. A new heaven and earth will then be built, and a holy, divine city will descend from the sky—the New Jerusalem (maybe looking a bit like this). The true believers in God will dwell with Him for all of eternity in this special city.
- Yes, you read that correctly: a holy city will descend from the sky.
- In most of Blake's poetry, Jerusalem represents some future, ideal world of peace and harmony, where all divisions are healed, discord is no more, and the universe is once again whole.
- While some of that idea can be glimpsed here, the speaker is really just asking if Jesus came to England and briefly brought a little bit of heaven with him (symbolized by "Jerusalem").
- Now, as for those "dark Satanic Mills." Even though the speaker is talking about Satan, he doesn't really mean our typical image of Satan. For Blake, Satan is much more than a red dude with a pitchfork.
- In Blake's mythological system, Satan is a word for all sorts of evil things: the wrong way to look at things, hate—even the Industrial Revolution.
- Yes, the Industrial Revolution. This whole shebang was just getting started in Blake's day, and Blake was just one of many, many people who had a huge problem with it. The Industrial Revolution basically introduced mechanized production (coal-burning factories) to the world. As you would expect, it also brought along its fair share of problems: dangerous work conditions, poor wages, child labor, pollution, etc. For William Blake, there was only one word to describe all these new "mills" popping up all over the place (a stand-in here for just about any late-eighteenth-century factory): "Satanic."
- Okay, so "Satanic Mills" is pretty clearly a reference to the Industrial Revolution—we get that, but… there was no industrial revolution in ancient times. That's what tricky about these lines. On the one hand, yes, the speaker is obviously talking about the Industrial Revolution, but he's got something else in mind as well.
- In general, "dark Satanic mills" just refers to life on Earth as we know it—the real world, the "fallen" world that hasn't yet been redeemed by God, the world where there is not yet a new Jerusalem for all of the true believers in God.
- Basically, the speaker wonders if there was ever a heaven on Earth in England back in ancient times, and if it was even possible that Jesus would have visited such a "Satanic" place as England.
- Whew, that was a workout for sure. Let's see where the speaker is going to go next, shall we?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
- The speaker is fired up after all that talk about dark Satanic mills. He's so fired up, it sounds like he's ready for battle, and ready to practice his anaphora skills.
- He asks for his "Bow of burning gold" and his "arrows of desire." This is really cool and all, but what damage is the speaker going to do with arrows made out of… desire? What does that even mean anyway?
- First of all, a bow made of burning gold sounds pretty awesome. It almost reminds us of a bow made out of flames, or something like that. Since we're dealing with William Blake, it wouldn't be that weird if he really were just talking about an actual bow made of flames.
- Still, he really probably just means a bow made out of gold, as in this illustration he made. It appears to be "burning" because it is so, well, golden, so bright and shiny.
- That super-cool bow comes complete with some really cool arrows made of desire. Or wait, are they the arrows that belong to the speaker's desire, as in the arrows he desires? The answer is anyone's guess, but they are almost magical arrows too, perfect for this semi-magical bow.
- But why a bow then? Well, in Blake's poetry the bow is a powerful weapon, wielded by many of Blake's major characters (God among them). So, as the speaker mentions a bow—and bows are popular in Blake's poetry—then maybe, just maybe, the bow and arrow are supposed to symbolize Blake's poetry.
- It's a bit of a stretch, but not much. The speaker may be saying something about the power of poetry to bring about the New Jerusalem.
- Let's keep going and see what else the speaker wants, shall we?
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
- The speaker also wants a spear to go with his bow and arrow. He wants the clouds to unfold, and for someone (the clouds themselves, perhaps?) to bring him his "Chariot of Fire," which looks sort of like this (we'll get back to this pic in just a sec).
- First up, the speaker is likely referring to a story from the Old Testament, recounted in 2 Kings 2:11. In the story, Elijah, one of the mega-prophets of the Old Testament, is whisked away to Heaven on a chariot of fire. This is how he supposedly "dies," only he doesn't die. You could say he ascends to Heaven in a magical chariot.
- That's pretty cool. Is the speaker claiming to be Elijah then? Well, kind of—and kind of not.
- He's definitely identifying himself with one of the Old Testament's major figures, which is his way of saying, "I'm important, I'm close to God, and you should probably listen to me."
- Okay, so why should we listen to him? Well, for one, he's calling attention to the fact that England is full of "dark Satanic mills," and that needs to change.
- He's also saying he plans to do something about it. This is where the spear comes in, and the bow and arrows… and the fire.
- The speaker asks for his weapons and his chariot because he is getting ready to do battle, to lay waste to those dirty mills and everything else.
- This is where Elijah comes in again.
- In the first chapter of 2 Kings, Elijah calls down fire from Heaven to destroy a group of bad guys who come to arrest him.
- It is shortly after this that God decides to bring Elijah up to Heaven in that special fire chariot.
- Translation: the speaker will use all of his weapons, perhaps even fire if necessary, and destroy the evils around him—much like Elijah. He has the power and ability to do this because he is one of God's chosen prophets.
- Yep, it just got real folks. Super real.
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
- Um… or did it?
- The speaker begins the poem's final stanza by saying he won't cease from "Mental Fight"?
- What's up with that?
- Then he follows up by saying his sword will not sleep in his hand. That seems impossible.
- Okay, so first things first: Blake wasn't really much for violence. It would be a little bit of a contradiction, then, to talk about weapons and burning and destruction for someone who wasn't a big fan of violence, wouldn't it?
- Granted, the speaker of this poem isn't technically Blake (see our "Speaker" section for more on this), but most of Blake's prophetic heroes aren't really into violence either.
- The point about "Mental Fight" is that there are non-violent ways to launch a revolution, to do away with all the bad stuff in the world. Remember, the French Revolution and all of its "terror" was quite fresh in Blake's mind, and he certainly wasn't an advocate for that.
- So what exactly would a "Mental Fight" look like? It's not clear because the speaker isn't very clear himself.
- However, being the diligent Blakeans we are, we know that in one of his famous poems, "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," Blake goes on and on about "melting apparent surfaces away." He also talks about how the "doors of perception" need to be "cleansed" once in a while.
- So, could "Mental Fight" mean looking at things differently? Is that what Blake is up to here? Can you get rid of "dark Satanic mills" by changing your entire outlook?
- In short, yes. Think about a guy like Martin Luther King. What did he say? Judge people by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin. How is that not a change in perception?
- Yes, we know Blake—and the speaker of this poem—aren't MLK, but the idea of a non-violent revolution is certainly applicable, even likely.
- This is where the sword comes in. Yes, the speaker's sword will not sleep, by which he means he will keep fighting the good fight. But that good fight will be conducted by engaging in powerful, mental, revolutionary changes in his outlook.
- Or something like that.
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.
- Speaking of the good fight, the speaker makes his commitment clear in the poem's final lines: his sword will not sleep until Jerusalem is built (again) in England's "green & pleasant Land."
- But who is this mysterious "we" anyway? That, friends, is not clear by any means.
- We're gonna go ahead and guess that the speaker is thinking about getting a little revolutionary band together, and that together they're gonna make England right. Somehow, they plan to make the present, or the future, just like the past so that Jerusalem is once again in England.
- Now, the whole process of building Jerusalem again is a metaphor for changing the world for the better .
- The world is full of "dark Satanic mills," and those need to be done away with, plain and simple.
- This isn't going to be easy because, well, building is never easy. It will be a "fight," that's for sure, but there's no point in doing it unless Jerusalem is built again.