Those of you of a foreign persuasion may not know that William Blake’s poem was set to music by Sir Hubert Parry during the First World War to boost morale and stiffen upper lips. In fact, you may not know the poem at all, but I’m sure you’ve heard of Chariots of Fire.
Anyway, the hymn is so famous on these shores that reciting it as a poem has become astonishingly difficult. You start out declaiming like Laurence Olivier, but the rhythms and cadences of the music keep creeping in.
For example, lines 2 and 4 should end with an upward inflection because they’re questions; but the music makes you want to end them as statements. The “did” in the first line should be stressed as it’s part of the tetrameter; but in the hymn the first stress falls on “feet”.
Indeed, the first thing to do is say de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM a few times as firmly as you can. Then launch in. And DID those FEET in ANCient TIME. It’s a completely different poem.
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 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
This is so preposterously patriotic that it is making me well up and want to go outside and jolly well go and shoot a German