At over 4500 lines, Jerusalem is the longest and the most magnificent of Blake’s illuminated books – but it is also perhaps his most unfathomable. His first biographer disparaged the epic poem as ‘a chaos of words, names and images’.
Blake worked on Jerusalem from 1804 to 1820, a period during which Britain was mostly at war with France. He regarded it as his masterpiece. Believing that ‘poetry fetter’d, fetters the human race’, he composed Jerusalem in unrhymed free verse. Five copies of the poem exist, of which only one (from the Yale Center for British Art) is in colour.
In Jerusalem, Albion (England) is infected with a ‘soul disease’ and her ‘mountains run with blood’ in consequence of the Napoleonic wars. Religion exists merely to help monarchy and clergy exploit the lower classes. Greed and war have obscured the true message of Christ. If, however, Albion can be reunited with Jerusalem, then all humanity will once again be bound together by the ties of love.
In this section we present five of the one hundred plates of Jerusalem with brief explanations.