Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Jerusalem, England and William Blake, (my take)


William Blake

Related Poem Content DetailBY WILLIAM BLAKE

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands 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 Englands green & pleasant Land.

Can Jerusalem be forged from the fires of those same satanic mills that kiln the swords of war?
His poem Tyger Tyger asks a similar question; "Did he who made the lamb make thee?" 
Blake's work reveals Gnostic leanings born of a kind of Zoroastrian dualism. 

Jerusalem is often sung as if it were a hymn to patriotism and the kind of stiff English spirit that can conjure Heavenly realms with an arsenal of ceaseless "mental fight" and sleepless swords.

"I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land."

In the second line in the second stanza the poet asks if the divine light ever shone upon the clouded hills of the English countryside. 
This is answered by another voice in the third stanza which doesn't ask but demands that the clouds be unfolded by both spear and chariot of fire, (symbols of war.)
In so doing they propose with bombastic grandeur, the idea that Holiness can be striven for. Or that Divine perfection can be equated with earthly perfection. 

Yet the irreconcilable difference between the voice of the first two stanzas and the voice of the last two mark the discrepancy between a sincere seeking of the divine and the dogmatic fundamentalism that asserts that one can conjure God with will alone. The poet seems to be inferring that  a God manifested by erroneous human will is in fact no more than an idol.

This way the idea that a heavenly state can be built like a city is mocked. 
Indeed the line "Among these dark Satanic Mills?" is the axis on which the tone of the poem turns.

The line which follows "Bring me my Bow of burning gold:" attached by colon to "Bring me my arrows of desire:" Makes a direct connection between gold (both the measurement of earthly wealth and the element of enlightenment in alchemy) and war (arrows,) arrows being a pointed thing with one single aim in sight like desire. Desire would not have been thought of as a divine attribute, especially in puritanical Protestantism. Blake is having fun equating the (gold and arrows) that turned the cogs of those (satanic mills)  with the puritanical heaven of a protestant work ethic which equated hard work with Godliness and worldly success with divine mandate.

Blake lived in the age of Enlightenment where the idea of an omnipotent God was questioned by the invention of the telescope, the discovery of new lands, a revision of the earth's age and place in the universe and scientific methodology. By the first industrial age, Heaven seemed to be a thing which could only be forged by physical sacrifice. The conflict between scientific materialism and Christian ideas about the transcendence of divinity   sought to drag heaven from the firmament to terra-firma, making it something that could be manifested tangibly.
To attain this lofty idea required sacrifice, "sword" and "mental fight." As the industrial revolution gained momentum, children were sacrificed to cotton mills and mines, the  poor were sacrificed to industry and the colonies were sacrificed to the empire. These sacrifices were justified as a means to an end. In a way the Industrialists were right. They did raise the living standards for many, eventually, and they were a catalyst for modern technological advances and medicine. However the heavy cost was often unaccounted for as it was made up of unknown and undervalued lives: the working class, the poor, children, people of colour, women and the disabled.

I believe Jerusalem is a great poem but not for the reasons for which it is popularly lauded. Blake's seemingly simplistic poems, nursery rhyme like in their meter and rhyme belie the multidimensional mind behind them that questioned both the dogmatic reductionist theories of the newly enlightened thinker and the unquestioning believer alike.

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