Jerusalem the golden

Jerusalem the golden,
with milk and honey blest,
beneath thy contemplation
sink heart and voice opprest.
I know not, O I know not
what joys await us there,
what radiancy of glory,
what bliss beyond compare.

'Urbs Sion aurea, patria lactea' is taken from a long poem of 2,966 lines, written in about 1140, entitled 'De Contemptu Mundi' by Bernard of Cluny (born c.1100 at Murles or Morlas, Brittany). Little is known about Bernard, except that he spent his life as a monk in the wealthy and influential monastery of Cluny. The poem is a satirical essay on the corrupt condition of the Church in 12th century Europe. The poem begins: 'Hora novissima, tempora pessima sunt: viilemus!' The writing in Latin hexamers was difficult, and Bernard attributed his success to a special gift of the Holy Spirit. The English translation (1858) by J M Neale (1818-1866) does not attempt to reproduce the original metre. Neale commented: 'The greater part is a bitter satire on the fearful corruptions of the age. But as a contrast to the misery and pollution of the earth, the poem opens with a description of the peace and glory of heaven, of such rare beauty as not easily to be matched by any medieval composition on the same theme.' The first translation of some of Bernard's verses appeared in 1849.

Sixteen of these verses, taken from near the beginning of the poem, contrast the glories of heaven with the evils of the world, and have produced four separate hymns: 'Jerusalem the Golden', 'Brief life is here our portion', 'The world is very evil' and 'For thee, O dear, dear country'. The fourth verse of Jerusalem the Golden was substantially altered in 1861 by the editors of Hymns Ancient and Modern. It is easier to sing than the original (retained in the New English Hymnal), but it loses much force and assurance. The original is:

O sweet and blessèd country, ahall I ever see thy face?
O sweet and blessèd country, shall I ever win thy grace?
Exult, O dust and ashes, the Lord shall be thy part:
His only his for ever, thou shalt be, and thou art.

Tune - Ewing

The tune Ewing was published in 1853 and, since 1861, has been used as the tune for this hymn. The original rhythm is different (in triple time), and the composer was unhappy that in the new form it sounded `like a polka'. It combines a wide compass with much low-pitched melody. The character is distinctive, partly from the unusual amount of minor tonality, and the dramatic climax in lines 5-6. Lt. Col. Alexander Ewing (1830-1895) trained for the law, but went into the army and served with distinction in the Crimean War. This is believed to have been his only piece of written music.

Nigel Day
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 5th June 2006