And did the countenance divine, shine forth upon our clouded hills

Bound for “old Blighty” which ever brings to mind two humbly born artists who ‘though they lived in different epochs, were famously far ahead of their times.  And if only in spirit, they were brought together by this high-reaching choral piece.

William Blake, poet and painter…

London born in 1757 he was considered mad while in his prime (his visions of angels hugely influencing his work) but is now recognized as a seminal figure in both the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age.  None other than William Rossetti would later describe him as a “glorious luminary… not forestalled by predecessors, nor to be classed with contemporaries, nor to be replaced by known or readily surmisable successors”.

Paul Leroy Robeson, Renaissance man…

Princeton, NJ born in 1898, the son of a slave, with his passport revoked in 1950 he was ostracized for his political activism during the burgeoning civil rights movement.  Yet we remember him as a distinguished linguist, writer, All-American athlete and professional football player, Phi Beta Kappa scholar and Rutgers valedictorian, Columbia Law graduate, star of Broadway and West End stages and Hollywood’s first black movie star.  With his alluring bass-baritone voice he was also a world-class recording artist and concert recitalist.

And the piece that brought them together…

“And Did Those Feet In Ancient Time” written by Blake in 1804, as part of the preface to his prophetic book, “Milton” in which he proffers a civilization freed of the inter-related chains of Commerce, Imperialism and War.  Nearly forgotten for a century, it was included in an anthology edited by Milton scholar and British Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges.  Entitled “The Spirit of Man” and published in 1916 when Britain was in the depths of the Great War, the anthology contained patriotic verse compiled to “brace the spirit of the nation…and accept with cheerfulness all the sacrifices necessary.”

Bridges felt that Blake’s lines would be especially appropriate as hymnal text and asked composer Sir Charles Hubert Parry to put it to “suitable, simple music … music that an audience could take up and join in.”  When King George V heard the resulting choral song, “Jerusalem” he claimed to have preferred it to “God Save the King.”

Many variations have since been performed (and yes, this is how the film “Chariots of Fire” received its name) including Robeson’s soothing recording from 1939…



 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 these dark satanic mills

Bring me my bow of burning gold

Bring me my arrows of desire

Bring me my spears o’clouds unfold

Bring me my chariot of fire

 I will not cease from mental fight

Nor shall my sword sleep in hand

‘Til we have built Jerusalem

In England’s green and pleasant land

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