O Clouds Unfold

O Clouds Unfold

This week’s choice is “And did those feet in ancient time” by William Blake—the words which, set to music by Hubert Parry, constitute the song “Jerusalem” that is sung at the Last Night of the Proms.

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!

William Blake (1757—1827)

Poem 286. And did those feet in ancient time

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.

Blake’s poem is closely associated with several activities at the heart of English life: the Last Night of the Proms, the closing of the annual conference of the Labour Party (though it has been sung at the conferences of every major UK political party), meetings of the Women’s Institute, the England cricket team’s home test matches. It has even been proposed as an official alternative national anthem.

The music was composed by Hubert Parry in 1916 for a meeting of the Fight for Right movement but Parry had misgivings over the movement and banned them from using the music. The song might have been withdrawn from public use altogether if the Suffragette movement had not adopted it—Parry was delighted and assigned the copyright to the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. When that organisation was wound up, his executors reassigned the copyright to the Women’s Institutes, who retained it until it entered the public domain in 1968. The orchestration now used is by Sir Edward Elgar.

The words, of course, are much older, having been written by Blake as part of the preface to his poem about John Milton (who also considered the concepts of heaven and hell in Paradise Lost).

The poem opens with two stanzas of questions: Blake asks if the ancient legend that Joseph of Arimathea visited Glastonbury accompanied by the young Jesus “the holy Lamb of God” might be true: “And did those feet”—Jesus’s feet—“walk upon Englands mountains green” (note that Blake omitted the apostrophe in Englands, it isn’t a typo on my part).

Were the hills of England, clouded as ever by the grey rain, made brilliant and beautiful by his gaze, and was the holy city of Jerusalem, one of the key places of Christianity, a temporary fixture in the landscape thanks to the presence of Jesus? The tone of these stanzas are of wonder—perhaps amazement that such shabbiness (as Blake saw the industrial landscape) could ever be nullified.

The third stanza becomes more active: Blake invokes the imagery of war: bows and arrows, spears and chariots, but also more religious imagery (this time from the Old Testament) of burning chariots disclosed by the parting clouds—a reference to Elijah and other prophets who ascended to heaven on chariots of fire.

The fourth stanza is the culmination: Blake says he will never rest from “Mental Fight”—argument and debate—nor physical action “Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand” until the principles and tenets of Christianity are deeply embedded in “Englands green and pleasant land”.

Blake’s poem isn’t really about building a new religious centre in our “green and pleasant land”—it’s about the repression and poverty that the Industrial Revolution brought with its “dark Satanic mills” and the hope that these evils could be countered by the creation of a utopian society where all are cared for. I imagine Blake would have been heartened by the creation of the Welfare State, though much of the rest of modern life would probably have distressed and depressed him.

Blake’s poems are often allegorical—he espoused views that were unpopular and often unpatriotic in his day, and so he was careful how he expressed his opinions, generally cloaking them in Protestant imagery as he does here. He was charged with high treason in 1803 but was fortunate to be acquitted—this trial was based on comments he had made, rather than anything written. In this case, he isn’t advocating armed struggle but striving unceasingly to bring about the new Jerusalem.

I like it because it has such strong imagery, it has an underlying message and because I’ve always enjoyed hearing it sung during the Proms. I also remember Michael Flanders saying in one of his monologues, “What English national song have we got? Jerusalem!”

The popularity of the song and therefore the poem is underscored by the fact that phrases from the poem have passed into the language: “chariots of fire”, “green and pleasant land”, “dark Satanic mills” have all found niches.

The song is so popular that good spoken versions of the poem are hard to find, so I’ll simply link to this year’s rendition during the Last Night of the Proms.


  • Read about the poem at Wikipedia.
  • Watch the performance of “Jerusalem” at the Last Night of the Proms 2023 on YouTube.