Bring Me My Bow of Burning Gold

Despite what its title might suggest, “Jerusalem” is a very popular national song in England. The words were originally written as a poem by William Blake, and Sir Hubert Parry wrote the music in 1916, presumably as part of an attempt to raise British morale during World War I. At first it was called by its first line, “And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time”; the shorter title wasn’t adopted until around 1918. If I had lived in England, I’m sure I would have been inundated with this song for my entire life. As I’m American, however, I mostly associate it with this:

The poem refers to a legend that developed in England in the Middle Ages, which was that Jesus had visited there in his childhood, in the company of his uncle Joseph of Arimathea.

Not that the Bible gives any indication that Joseph was related to Jesus; he was simply a rich patron who buried Jesus’ body after the crucifixion. This in and of itself is rather suspicious, as crucified bodies were usually kept up to serve as a warning. I guess it’s possible that Joseph bribed someone, though. Anyway, the medieval legend is that Joseph was Mary’s uncle, and he brought the young Jesus to Britain after the boy’s father (also named Joseph) died. While there, they built a cabin in Glastonbury. Joseph must have liked the place a lot, because after the crucifixion and resurrection, he brought the Holy Grail there and had Glastonbury Abbey built to hold it.

I’m thinking King Arthur’s knights just came up with this so they didn’t have to travel too far from home on their quests.

Anyway, since Blake’s poem (and hence the national song) speaks of the legend in questions, it suggests skepticism as to whether Jesus’ visit to England’s green and pleasant land actually happened. The most common interpretation seems to be that Blake is saying, “Jesus might or might not have actually come here, but regardless, we have to do our part to make England into the New Jerusalem.” The New Jerusalem is a reference to the Book of Revelation, in which the city is an earthly paradise established after the final defeat of Satan.

Not much like the actual Jerusalem, really, which appears to have become spiritually significant simply because it was easily defensible. Not that that stopped the Babylonians, the Greeks, or the Romans from conquering it. When place names become symbols, however, they always sound much more impressive. I can’t say I’ve ever been to Israel, but from what I’ve heard about it, there are other places in the world that are much better sources of milk and honey. And no, the River Jordan is not particularly deep nor wide. Getting back to Blake’s poem, he presents the paradise that England could be as an alternative to the dark Satanic mills established by the Industrial Revolution. It’s optimistic, but calls for people to take part in establishing paradise rather than just waiting around for a miracle.

One thing I noticed some years ago, but only actually confirmed fairly recently, is how similar Billy Joel’s song “And So It Goes” is to “Jerusalem.” The tune isn’t exactly the same, but it’s definitely reminiscent, and they have the same meter. Oddly, I’ve only found one other reference to the similarity online.

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11 Responses to Bring Me My Bow of Burning Gold

  1. The tower on the Tor isn’t the Abbey; it’s the remnant of St Michael’s Church. The Abbey ruins (much larger) are below the Tor.

  2. Glenn I says:

    That Monty Python sketch – still funny.

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  4. Donna Stapleton says:

    I am playing a part in Calendar Girls and required to know the song. I kept singing it in the tune of “And So It Goes” but not quite matching up with the original “Jerusalem.” My husband was the one who pointed out that I was using the Billy Joel tune, but the words of “Jerusalem.” They are so similar, I though I would search and see what was online. So far, there is one other mention.

    • Nathan says:

      They’re just way too similar, and I’ve heard the Billy Joel song more often. Perhaps that’s not the case for people in England.

      • harry says:

        Billy Joel recently mentioned in some song commentary on his SIRIUS XM channel that either his mother or first wife (I can’t remember which) was in a coral group that performed traditional English folk songs and hymnals. Billy said he got a lot of exposure to these types of songs while living with (either his mom or first wife) and this music has influenced several of his songs.

      • Nathan says:

        That makes a lot of sense.

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  6. rri0189 says:

    The tune and Blake’s words are probably best known in the USA by Episcopalians, though I have seen the tune printed with a toe-curlingly vague and nonspecific lyric, churches, evangelical, for the use of.

  7. Chris Bjork says:

    I just heard the Billy Joel song for the first time recently and immediately thought it sounded very similar to Jerusalem. I’m glad I’m not alone.

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