Students tend to think of poetry as an English teacher problem. “Oh, man,” their attitude seems to be. “Only an English teacher could love something like poetry. Me, I can’t understand any of it, except maybe the poems I read in elementary school.”
Ironic, given how much students love music, because music means lyrics and lyrics are first cousin not-at-all-removed from poetry. If you don’t believe me, you only need go as far as a Swedish Academy near you, where some fellow name Bob Dylan, songwriter, just stole off with the Nobel Prize for Literature.
One particular “grown-up” poem that shows how poetry can meld with music and film is William Blake’s lovely nugget from the larger poem Milton. Embraced by the British, the poem segment is more often known by its first quoted line, “And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time.”
My first exposure to Blake’s poem came not via the classroom, but by way of an album cut in 1973 by the British rockers Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Brain Salad Surgery (what a poetically-lovely title!) opens with, of all things, Blake’s poem, only I didn’t know it at the time. I thought it was the fantastic brainchild of the group itself. Only years later would I learn that the mesmerizing words came from a fascinating mystic who lived in England from 1757 to 1827.
Nowadays, when I offer the poem in my classroom, I always play the old Emerson, Lake, and Palmer version after we’ve read and discussed it. Then I reinforce the word “allusion” by talking about the 1981 movie that took its name from Blake’s poem. That movie was about British runners who competed in the 1924 Paris Olympics.
As for the poem itself, I simply ask students to point out the “cool lines.” It is amazing how simple that request can be in the classroom. Students, even those who know nothing about poetry and profess to hate it, are naturally drawn to poetic devices and good writing.
They are intrigued by metaphors in lines like “these dark Satanic mills,” “my Bow of burning gold,” “my arrows of desire,” and “my Chariot of fire.” They love the personification of “Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand.” And they are fascinated by the concept of Jerusalem being built in, of all places, “England’s green & pleasant Land.”
And who wouldn’t be? In Blake’s hands, even an ordinary and clichéd word like “pleasant” becomes le mot juste. There can be no better evocation for the natural beauty of England under the threat of industrialization and those “dark Satanic Mills.”
Here, then, is the poem that inspired the music and the film. If you teach, it will inspire your students, too.
“And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time”
by William Blake
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.