Show Hide image

Top 20 Political Songs: Jerusalem | William Blake | 1916

Poem transformed into unofficial national anthem

Starting life as a poem by the English printmaker, painter and poet William Blake, "Jerusalem" would be transformed over a century later when it was published in a patriotic anthology during the middle of the First World War.

Amid flagging morale and mounting casualties, "Jerusalem" provided the affirmation that people badly needed of why the war was being fought. Such was its success that the poet laureate Robert Bridges asked Sir Hubert Parry to set it to music in 1916 and "Jerusalem" was reincarnated as the hymn known universally today.

The "Jerusalem" described here is new: Blake, inspired by the apocryphal story of Jesus's visit to England, linked it to the concept of the Second Coming and Jesus's establishment of another Jerusalem, by now a metaphor for a world of peace. For a wartime audience, that better, peaceful world was clearly England.

Another popular interpretation has focused on the industrial upheaval during the 19th century -- the nightmarish "dark Satanic mills" of Blake's imagination contrasting with the "pleasant pastures" where this new Jerusalem could be.

But if Blake's message was once given urgency by the change the Industrial Revolution brought to Britain, his words have nevertheless proved enduringly popular: as a suffragette song, as the anthem of the England cricket team, and now sung by the audience every year at the end of the Last Night of the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall.

Next: Won't Get Fooled Again.

Previous: God Save the Queen.

Back to list


Listen to our entire Top 20