Sunday, July 25, 2010

Burning Bows and Sleeping Swords

Like a lot of people I know, my first exposure to the hymn Jerusalem was through a Monty Python comedy routine. In the sketch, a salesperson in a department store would put a bag on his head upon hearing the word 'mattress', forcing a co-worker to stand in a tea chest and sing: "And did those feet, in ancient times, walk upon England's mountain's green..."

Some time later I would hear the same verse in the interlude of Supertramp's Fool's Overture, and still later I would hear a cover of the tune in its entirety by British progressive rock band Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

Fenya's first exposure to the tune was when I put a 'terrace singing' rendition on a disk of football songs for the World Cup back in June, as Jerusalem has become the unofficial anthem for many of England's sporting teams. Despite her lack of familiarity with the tune, she still volunteered to sing it in church today. The words to Jerusalem are actually William Blake's poem, "And did those feet in ancient times", and relates to an apocryphal story of a youthful Jesus visiting England with his uncle, Joseph of Arimathea.

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 those 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.

An actual trip by Jesus from Judea to England seems a little unlikely to me, even if such a trip would not have crossed the borders of the Roman Empire of the day. Even Blake seems uncertain, as he never actually asserts the presence of Jesus, but poses four questions instead. What I like best about the poem is Blake's assertion that building a better and more peaceful world cannot be left solely to divine intervention, but that he and like-minded people must struggle to create it. Obviously, there will always be a number of ideas as to how best to accomplish this, but Blake's stark imagery of "dark Satanic mills" makes it pretty clear that he was not counting on the Industrial Revolution to provide the answers. Sir Hubert Parry added the music in 1916, and the resulting hymn, Jerusalem, has been a popular part of England's musical history ever since.

Our church does a lot of fill-ins over the summer, and this Sunday both our minister and our regular organist were away on vacation. Our lay-minister Nancy was able to organize the service, and Mr. Puffer was more than willing to accompany Fenya on the organ, and was even able to meet with her earlier in the week to rehearse.

Unfortunately, I neglected to aquire a proper video camera prior to her performance, and our camera can only do about 90 seconds at a time, so I recorded the first part of the song during her rehearsal before church, and the second part during her performance in the service.

While Fenya did an admirable job with a difficult piece of music, what makes me proudest is her willingness to perform it publicly in the first place. It was a great experience for Fenya, and her choice made a lot of people in church very happy, especially one English ex-pat who says it is her favourite.


  1. Beautiful job Fenya! We're so proud of you! Shelley, Jay, Elora & Wren

  2. Arrrrrrrrrrgh I was supposed to bring the video camera on Saturday! I'm so sorry. Darn it!

  3. Dude, I fully forgot to remind you like you asked me to! No apology necessary.