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.