THIS hymn originated in the 12th century when a French Benedictine monk known as Bernard of Cluny (who apparently had English parents) wrote De contemptu mundi (On Contempt for the World), a 3,000-line poem of stinging satire directed against the secular and religious failings he observed around him.
The Wikipedia entry is a great description: ‘The enormity of sin, the charm of virtue, the torture of an evil conscience, the sweetness of a God-fearing life alternate with heaven and hell as the themes of his majestic dithyramb. He returns again and again to the wickedness of woman (one of the fiercest arraignments of the sex), the evils of wine, money, learning, perjury, soothsaying, etc. This master of an elegant, forceful, and abundant Latinity cannot find words strong enough to convey his prophetic rage at the moral apostasy of his generation. Youthful and simoniacal bishops, oppressive agents of ecclesiastical corporations, the officers of the Curia, papal legates, and the pope himself are treated with no less severity than in Dante or in the sculptures of medieval cathedrals.’
In 1849 the poet and clergyman Richard Chenevix Trench (who was to become Archbishop of Dublin and whose great-grandson Anthony Chenevix-Trench was headmaster of Eton from 1963 to 1969) edited the opening of De contemptu mundi into 95 lines which he discussed in his Sacred Latin Poetry, chiefly Lyrical. This is an extraordinarily learned work which you can see here and turn the pages! It is hard to imagine such a book being produced today. The lines describe the peace and glory of heaven before Bernard launches into his attack on earthly suffering and corruption.
The Anglican priest and scholar John Mason Neale (1818-1866) translated the 95 lines into English, though he gave them a Latin title, Hora Novissima (The Last Hour). This appeared in his 1851 collection Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences. Sections of his text were used for several hymns, of which Jerusalem the Golden is the best known.
Jerusalem the golden,
With milk and honey blest,
Beneath your contemplation
Sink heart and voice oppressed.
I know not, oh, I know not
What joys await us there,
What radiancy of glory,
What bliss beyond compare.
They stand, those halls of Zion,
Conjubilant with song
And bright with many and angel
And all the martyr throng.
The prince is ever in them;
The daylight is serene;
The pastures of the blessed
Are decked in glorious sheen.
There is the throne of David,
And there, from care released,
The shout of those who triumph,
The song of those who feast.
And they, who with their leader
Have conquered in the fight,
Forever and forever
Are clad in robes of white.
Oh, sweet and blessed country,
The home of God’s elect!
Oh, sweet and blessed country
That eager hearts expect!
In mercy, Jesus, bring us
To that dear land of rest!
You are, with God the Father
And spirit, ever blest.
Neale wrote: ‘It would be most unthankful did I not express my gratitude to God, for the favour He has given some of the centos made from the poem: but especially Jerusalem the Golden. It has found a place in some twenty hymnals; and for the last two years it has hardly been possible to read any newspaper which gives prominence to ecclesiastical news, without seeing its employment chronicled at some dedication or other festival. It is also a great favourite with dissenters, and has obtained admission in Roman Catholic services. “And I say this,” to quote Bernard’s own preface, “in no wise arrogantly, but with all humility, and therefore boldly.” But more thankful still am I that the Cluniac’s verses should have soothed the dying hours of many of God’s servants: the most striking instance of which I know is related in the memoir published by Mr Brownlow under the title A little child shall lead them; where he says that the child of whom he writes, when suffering agonies which the medical attendants declared to be almost unparalleled, would lie without a murmur or motion while the whole 400 lines were read to him.’ (The ‘400 lines’ refers to the English translation.)
The tune most often used is Ewing, composed by the Scottish musician Alexander Ewing (1830-1895). He originally wrote it for another hymn derived from Neale’s Hora Novissima: For Thee, O Dear, Dear Country. While Ewing, who was in the Army, was serving overseas, a relative submitted the music to the editor of Hymns Ancient and Modern, where it appeared in 1861 as the tune for Jerusalem the Golden. However the hymn book’s editor, William Henry Monk (composer of Eventide, the tune of Abide With Me) changed the metre from triple to duple. Not unreasonably, the composer was put out and complained: ‘It now seems to me a good deal like a polka.’
The relative who submitted the tune was the Bishop of Argyll and the Isles who was also named Alexander Ewing, so the misconception has arisen that he was the writer. So not only did poor old Ewing see his tune changed, he did not even get the credit for it.
Here is a lovely performance by the choir of Ely Cathedral with Harry Secombe:
Here it is with variations by Charles Ives played by the US Marines Band ‘The President’s Own’:
It was arranged by Peter Skellern for Sleeping, a 1981 BBC play in a series called Happy Endings.
I love this performance by Rodney Jantzi on an 1897 pump organ:
Finally, the Salvation Army.