Skip to content ↓
I Am Known: I Am More

A call to action. What does Blake’s ‘epic’ poem mean, and is it ‘true?’

‘Jerusalem’ or ‘And did those feet in ancient times’ (1804) set to music by Hubert Parry (1916) and orchestrated by Sir Edward Elgar, is not in its first incantation and intention a hymn. Indeed, neither is it technically a hymn because it is not a prayer. Rather the poem, by William Blake, is from the preface to his work Milton: A Poem in Two Books and is better titled in fact ‘Milton’.

It is often assumed that the poem was inspired by the apocryphal story that a young Jesus, during the ‘unknown years’, travelled to what is now England accompanied by Joseph of Arimathea. This idea existed in British oral tradition, yes; but context is everything and it is more likely that Blake had read in Milton's History of Britain that Joseph of Arimathea, alone, travelled to preach to the Britons after Christ’s death. The idea of Christ’s arrival in those terms seems yet more apocryphal though the theme sits more comfortably – typologically – in narratives surrounding the Book of Revelation (3:12 and 21:2) and its description of the Second Coming and a New Jerusalem. Let’s not forget that the very idea of Jerusalem is invariably, euphemistically, symbolically and metaphorically used to stand for heaven.

We should first be ready to worry this idea and the question of whether Blake really wants us to believe that Christ came to Britain better to understand what it is exactly that we are saying. Secondly, we should consider if it matters if he did come at all. I think to understand why we are so fond, attached, and moved by this text deserves some explanation of that, and that in unpicking some of its elements those questions find quite illuminating answers.

It is worth noting that Blake is often referred to as a mystical writer. In his writings he describes his unusual and sometimes highly spiritualised visions. He did not separate those ideas or experiences from ‘reality’ as we might now define it.

I think the first rather significant point of note however is that Blake was probably imitating Milton’s epic style, albeit in a manner and meter which Milton may not have used. At the beginning of Book 9 of Paradise Lost the narrator (known also as the Miltonic Voice) explains that when first planning his epic poem his subject and his tenor – his intended audience - were very different from what he finally produced. Milton had perfected many of the Latin poetic genres writing in that language. But his ultimate intention is to explain in the English language ‘Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime’ (sic: I. 16) and which is ostensibly to justify the ways of God to mankind. He muses, though, on what he might have written: an Epic poem about England, the foundations of Britain; Brutus, perhaps Arthur, of ‘fabl'd Knights’ /

In Battels feign'd; the better fortitude
Of Patience and Heroic Martyrdom
Unsung; or to describe Races and Games,
Or tilting Furniture, emblazon'd Shields,
Impreses quaint, Caparisons and Steeds;
Bases and tinsel Trappings, gorgious Knights
At Joust and Torneament; then marshal'd Feast
Serv'd up in Hall with Sewers, and Seneshals;

Blake, in other words, using a version of the Miltonic voice, gives us a taste of the way that Milton may have marked the defining moment in England’s earlier Christian History, and imagines the most epic, significant and important idea of all: that Christ himself blesses and ‘establishes’ (Eng)land with his feet. And note that the images of Christ, ‘feet’ and ‘countenance’, are metonymic figures which give us important aspects of Christ’s Presence (his contact with the land, his gaze upon it) and not a description of His whole Person. It is at once highly enigmatic and beautifully understated. The mysterious quality this generates is complicated by the punctuation. Interpretations usually see Blake as asking whether a visit by Jesus briefly created heaven in England, but note that the first stanza of the four contains no question marks and could be a statement. What is generated though, is a contrast between that brief moment of heaven and the ‘dark Satanic Mills’ of the Industrial Revolution, though Blake surely also had in mind the enslavement of Samson in the poem Samson Agonistes by Milton. Like Milton, Sampson, blinded, cut-off from his power, and from God, realises the inner blindness which lead to the poor decisions which sealed his fate. He did not act. From darkness, though, he can rise again.

In contrast the light of the second stanza comes from those four questions, which do not assert the historical truth of Christ's visit but rather establish a more important idea still: that we must internalise the image of the present Christ and use it as an exhortation to create an ideal society in England. We must personally join the spiritual battle to build a new Jerusalem here on an already hallowed, green and pleasant land. This is not a suggestion in the poem but rather an activity. The ‘me’, ‘I’ and ‘we’ of the later eight lines of the poem make our speech our actions in the present. We shift from past to the present tense continual at line 9 to personal and collective pronouns. Blake turns his words into our action, as we cannot resist participation in using personal, determined and imperative terms: Bring me my bow of burning gold...

The poem is remarkably regular each line of those 4 quatrains are measured out in iambic tetrameter, each stress assisting the roundedness of the octosyllables. It sounds thoughtful and reflective, and coupled with each of those questions and the rich imagery wherein we see ourselves acting makes us feel that we are on the verge of witnessing or perhaps realising a fundamental Truth bringing together the love of our Lord with the emotion we may feel for the land of our nativity. Through the use of imaginative art, we are compelled to envision our actions through speech acts which set out for us a template for our deeds; which show us that we should not wait on external forces to turn us into the heroic, spiritual figures we believe we may be but rather proactively realise our spiritual duty in the very and every moment. To paraphrase C S Lewis this poem adds to our reality, it does not simply describe it.

Did Christ come to England? One can answer this with another question: are poet’s liars? It was a topic of debate for many theologians and ran throughout the period we term medieval. The debate was instigated by Plato who said that poets should be excluded from the ideal Republic because they are such great liars. Poetry is or was, for him, an imitation thrice removed from the truth. It is not difficult to see why this aspect of what became theological discourse clashed with invention, and a response was forthcoming based on Aristotle. That is that an idea expressed in fiction can be more important than the thing or reality itself; and that a part of the power of poems is precisely that they can reduce, simplify and make events accessible by the (re)presentation in fiction. In that textual space, ideas can be privileged above the ‘things’ of a fallen world because their moral or spiritual meaning points metaphorically to a Truth. In Aristotelian terms we could say that in some texts the realm of the potential is placed over the realm of the actual.

Does it matter that Christ was not, perhaps, literally here? No. Because in all other ways of course he was and is always present. At another level still the poem is a pilgrimage; we revisit the site of the poem together and by doing so have bestowed spiritual significance upon it. 

Dr David Moses, Assistant Head (6th Form) & Teacher of English

Explore more of our school

Contact Us

The Oratory School

Tel: +44 (0)1491 683500