Tuesday 16 March 2010


Here's a challenge: try reciting the poem Jerusalem without making it sound like the hymn.

Those of you of a foreign persuasion may not know that William Blake's poem was set to music by Sir Hubert Parry during the First World War to boost morale and stiffen upper lips. In fact, you may not know the poem at all, but I'm sure you've heard of Chariots of Fire.

Anyway, the hymn is so famous on these shores that reciting it as a poem has become astonishingly difficult. You start out declaiming like Laurence Olivier, but the rhythms and cadences of the music keep creeping in.

For example, lines 2 and 4 should end with an upward inflection because they're questions; but the music makes you want to end them as statements. The "did" in the first line should be stressed as it's part of the tetrameter; but in the hymn the first stress falls on "feet".

Indeed, the first thing to do is say de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM a few times as firmly as you can. Then launch in. And DID those FEET in ANCient TIME. It's a completely different poem, postively mooreeffocish.

And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon England's mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England's 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 England's green and pleasant Land

And as a fillip to foreigners here is the hymn accompanied by a series of preposterously patriotic English images that make me tear up and want to jolly well go and shoot a german.

P.S. I was reminded of all this because I went to see the play Jerusalem last night, which is terribly good and goodly terrible.

P.P.S. Anybody who thinks fit to complain about the split infinitive in the last sentence will be fed to the weasels.


  1. I hate to contradict, but I reckon I could do it. It's a long, long time since I sang a hymn but I read poems all the time. So perhaps it depends on your current default settings.

  2. The Antipodean20 June 2010 at 06:32

    As a foreigner it's easier, I think. The song is a bit of an earworm, though - I've only watched it once and I'm humming it, although reciting the poem several times first may've influenced that.

    I must say that is one of the best referenced videos I have ever seen: two minutes of footage acknowledging sources in a five minute video. It is positively academic, although not following any style guide that I recognised. A little obsessed with hay, for some reason. Is hay particularly English?

  3. Hay is peculiarly English. It was invented in 1836 by Augustus Hay after whom it is named. Originally it was carried around on Y-shaped prongs on which novels were written, hence the Hay on Wye book festival.
    Augustus Hay was notoriously careless with needles.

  4. The Antipodean21 June 2010 at 04:57

    Heh... coffee really isn't good for my keyboard, it turns out.

    It's people like you what cause unrest among future etymologists and philologists. "His analysis of some sources is strong, and the 'Etched' fragment clearly demonstrates the changing use of the word at the time, but some of his comments are baffling." Obscure academics will dispute over whether the comments are canon or not, and which should be take seriously, if any.