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"And did those feet in ancient time..."
Blake's poem Jerusalem begins with the somewhat curious question "And did those feet in ancient time / Walk upon England's mountains green?"

I was thinking about this recently; I was trying to reconstruct where I'd heard about an indigenous English tradition of Jesus having visited Glastonbury during his lifetime. The poem -- it's also, more famously, a hymn -- appears to reflect this.

Can anyone else provide insight or pointers to more substantial sources? Are there any other countries Jesus was supposed to have visited (in this tradition, or others)? I'm aware of stories of Mary Magdalene coming ashore in the south of France, for instance; but Jesus in Glastonbury is a pretty remarkable idea, and I wonder what might have given rise to it.
I can't think of other sources or comparable traditions, though also I'd be interested to hear about them if anybody can tell us.  As for Blake, I wouldn't be surprised if this were his own invention; it would seem to fit his idiosyncratic low-church (and non-churchgoing) Christianity.

Failing that, maybe it's worthwhile to say something about the meaning of this appearance of Jesus in the poem.  Here's the whole lyric:

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

It's helpful to read "And did those feet in ancient time" in its context in the preface to Blake's long poem Milton.  (Of course, it could also be interesting to look at its use and re-interpretation as an English hymn.)  When the lyric speaker says "I will not cease from Mental Fight," it's clear that "Mental Fight" is contrasted with the "Corporeal War" named in the paragraph that precedes this lyric.  The latter, physical violence, is associated with the "Stolen and Perverted Writings of Homer  &  Ovid; of Plato  &  Cicero, which all Men ought to contemn," and we have to make some sense of Blake's distinction here between the classical and the Judeo-Christian traditions.  I take the biblical text and the figure of Jesus here as a sanction for mental warfare; in the course of Milton, Blake sets out to save Milton from the classics, to rewrite Milton's militancy as a mental combat, and to produce a representation that doesn't entail violence.  So I read Blake's representation of Jesus' bodily presence as his initiation of a non-violent messianic nationalism.  (Here, admittedly, I've been strongly affected by some other readings of Blake.)  Jesus' physical form -- which stands to Greek and Roman sculpture in the same way that the Hebrew bible stands to those "Stolen and Perverted" classical writings -- is for Blake a human form, but a human form considered as the highest value and the source or standard of meaning.

It's probably important, too, that Blake invokes the physical presence of Jesus rather than something like his words; mental fight is predicated on bodily (and sexual) life, while a representation of Jesus that ignores his body is, for Blake, likely to lead to violence.  The footstep of Jesus also recalls various kinds of class representation, especially Blake's ideas of art as craftsmanship.  On the plate that precedes this lyric, Blake shows Milton's body and its gesture as a characteristic image of the artist's production of significant representation. I would say that the historical precedent of Jesus signifies a tradition of genuine image-making, a precedent that the true poet invokes without copying, and an image-making whose validity depends on the whole bodily activity of the poet or painter.
Books Discussed
Milton, A Poem (The Illuminated Books of William Blake, Volume 5)
by William Blake
William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books
by William Blake

I did a bit of rummaging about online, so take this for what that is worth: This seems to be part of one of many legends surrounding Joseph of Arimathea. This particular one alleges he brought the young Christ to England in 27AD and that Christ himself built a church there ("there" generally assumed to be Glastonbury).

Three sources for this surface repeatedly, though with conflicting interpretations: A missive from St. Augustine to Pope Gregory, the histories of William of Malmesbury (specifically, those of the Glastonbury Abbey and the English Kings) and a later work by Rev. C. C. Dobson,  Did Jesus Visit Britain as they say in Cornwall and Somerset?

Unfortunately, while many of the online articles (supposedly) quote directly from these sources, I could not find online copies of the works themselves. Moreover, some of the citations are of the sort easily misinterpreted. (Example: Augustine's remark about a church "built by the hand of the Lord himself," apparently taken literally by some, but figuratively by Malmesbury, who says "by the disciples of...")

I have now successfully postponed writing for an entire morning, but it was an interesting rabbit trail in cultural anthropology and the development of legend. Thank you for the diversion.
Thanks to you both for the remarks. Jeremy, when in the first stanza you quote

And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!


it's really quite wonderful that the completely literal question of the first two lines is followed by the mainly metaphorical lines 3-4, although of course anyone not familiar with the tradition would be forgiven for thinking the lamb was a lamb (this resonates with Ailinn's mention of Augustine's remark "taken literally by some"). This kind of whimsical mixture of the literal and figurative -- all delivered quite flatly -- does seem to be, in large part, what's at stake; and to me, it's reminiscent of a certain genre of Western Christian religious painting:



How much cultural work goes into knowing exactly which elements are almost photorealistic, and which symbolic. Is it e.g. a carefully arranged constellation of sins or a perfectly beautiful representation -- a still-life, perhaps -- of some decorated circular platter?
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Latest Post: February 14, 2011 at 1:54 AM
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