William Blake, in his poem in his preface to Milton, a Poem, commonly known as "Jerusalem" (not to be confused with the long poem Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion (1804-1820)), written 1804, which is about socialism, not religion, writes:

And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

(NB by the "Satanic Mills" he means the churches of the Established Church (Church of England), as correctly mentioned at the bottom of the paragraph on the expression in the Wikipedia page. The period of the industrial revolution involving mill towns with hundreds of chimneys had not even been imagined by 1804. This is one of the most widespread popular misinterpretations of a poetic expression of all time.)

Anyway, my question is: is there a term, in literary criticism or rhetoric, meaning "past for the future"? When he says "was Jerusalem builded here" he means "shall we manage to build Jerusalem (= a state where all people are free, particularly of tyranny, but also of "mind-forged manacles", etc.), in the future?"

I can think of another example, although with a different purpose: the Arabic phrase "Inshalla". This is actually an abbreviated form for the expression:

ان شاء الله

("in sha' Allah")

The Arabic verb here is actually in the past, and the phrase means "if God wished". But it is used by Arabic-speakers to mean "I hope [X happens...]".

In this case the reason for using "past for the future" is somewhat different: it refers to the notion that God is outside time: God knows what is going to happen, and "all is written". We may find out in a year's time whether God wished Leeds United to win the Premiership, etc.

My knowledge of Classical literature is not compendious, but I think it is likely that Latin or possibly Ancient Greek writers may well have used "past for the future" as a rhetorical device in the Blakean manner above. Some sacred writings from religions other than Islam may contain instances of the second type.

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    I'm not convinced by the analysis here. Blake's use of "in ancient time" in the opening line suggests that he when he uses the past tense he means it. There is a turn to the present tense in the third stanza and the future in the fourth and it seems to me that this line of development would be muddied if we take the second stanza as past-for-future as suggested. Oct 26, 2021 at 11:40
  • Point of view, of course: Blake is nothing if not oblique: a source of endless interpretation, something which he has in common with the Bard. But I can't quite see what you think the beginning of the poem is getting at. The poem certainly alludes to the (crackpot, even in Blake's time) notion that Jesus visited the West Country as a boy with his Uncle Joseph of Arimathea. But in my view (I am not alone) it merely uses this as a device: even if the legend were true, there's no way Jesus "built Jerusalem" in Britain. What is Blake trying to achieve, then, by this question, in your view? Oct 26, 2021 at 12:45
  • Plus... if this is not a question from the perspective of "now" (1804), it makes the expression "dark satanic mills" even more puzzling: there were no mills and no churches in AD 10 or whenever. I'd go further, in view of Blake's ingrained, structural obliqueness and hermeticism: in my view, he deliberately signals that this is "past-for-the-future" through the mention of these "mills", which those in the know would understand as being the churches (and the associated conservative, repressive ideology) of 1804 Britain. Oct 26, 2021 at 13:06
  • Your question is based on a dubious premise: "When he says 'was Jerusalem builded here' he means 'shall we manage to build Jerusalem ... in the future?'" No, I think Blake is asking – very cynically – whether "Jerusalem" (by which he means Christianity) has been constructed alongside the "Satanic Mills" (which, as you mention, could be Blake's code for the C of E)? Or, put simply: has England's "green & pleasant land" been fouled by a violent and oppressive State religion? Blake thinks it's already happened; there's no "past-for-the-future" sense here. Oct 26, 2021 at 20:00
  • You may be right. I just read an article claiming that the legend of the "ancient feet" being Jesus was only invented in 1895 (prior to that it was imagined that Joseph of Arimathea came on his lonesome). I've always had the impression, not sure from where, that "Jerusalem" (as an enduring symbol in his poetry) was a Blakean symbol for "the ideal state of Christian England" according to Blake's criteria, and thus an aspiration, and thus necessarily pertaining to the future. But this might be wrong. Or again this could be right, but your interpretation might also be right. Oct 27, 2021 at 6:20

1 Answer 1


Analysis of the question

Here is my attempt to analyze the argument in the question, as clarified in the comments below it. I hope this is fair.

  1. (premise) The first stanza of the poem refers to a legend of a visit by Jesus to Britain when he was a child, circa AD 10.

  2. (premise) By “dark Satanic Mills” Blake meant the Church of England, which was founded in 1534.

  3. (premise) In order to “build Jerusalem among these dark Satanic Mills”, it is necessary for the mills to exist before starting to build.

  4. (deduction from 1, 2 and 3) The second stanza can’t be referring to the building of Jerusalem by Jesus because the Church of England did not exist at the time of Jesus’ supposed visit.

  5. (premise) The only possible interpretations of lines 7–8 are that Blake is referring to the building of Jerusalem by Jesus, or that Blake is asking whether we are going to build Jerusalem in the future.

  6. (deduction from 4 and 5) Blake is asking whether we are going to build Jerusalem in the future.

  7. (premise) The second stanza is phrased as a pair of questions in the past tense.

  8. (deduction from 6 and 7) Blake is using the past tense to refer to the future.

Now, there is a useful philosophical adage, “one person’s modus ponens is another’s modus tollens”, which reminds us that a chain of logical reasoning works in both directions: if the truth of some premises entail the truth of a conclusion, then the falsity of the conclusion entails the falsity of at least one of the premises.

So when you reason yourself into a difficult conclusion, one way to think about it is that the very difficulty of your conclusion is evidence that one or more of your premises is incorrect.

Are all the premises solid?

Let’s take a look at the premises in detail.

  1. Is there in fact a legend of a visit by Jesus to Britain when he was a child? This question was considered in detail by A. W. Smith, and he found that the evidence was doubtful, consisting of fragments of folklore that were not attested prior to the 1890s:

    At the time of writing our first explicit references are still those of the 1890s by Jenner and Baring-Gould, discussed earlier. J. W. Taylor (The Coming of the Saints, 1906), who extensively researched the earliest apostolic traditions of France and Britain, knows no more that did those two. Since oral versions seem to have been in circulation by 1900, if not slightly earlier, I would suggest the 1870s as the likeliest decade of origin.

    A. W. Smith (1989). ‘“And Did those Feet...?”: the “Legend” of Christ’s Visit to Britain’, Folklore 100:1, p. 81.

    Smith considered whether Blake was referencing the supposed legend:

    Does Blake’s lyric attest a knowledge of or a belief in a literal visit by Jesus to Britain? I would suggest it does not. I have searched Blake’s poetry, prose and ephemera for any evidence that he knew this story and can find none, yet still I was not bold enough to reject entirely what seemed to be so generally accepted. The authorities I consulted (who included the learned editors of the quarterly Blake published from the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque) all offered speculations as to where the poet might have picked up the tale. Suggested sources were journals of walking tours in the West of England, family links with Glastonbury (or Ireland!), the sectarians Richard Brothers or Joanna Southcott, but no concrete evidence was proffered. No one seemingly had really addressed themselves to this particular problem. It was a retired Canon of Bristol, Rev. J. Stafford Wright, who enabled me to think the hitherto unthinkable, something he had found himself compelled to do by the logic of the evidence many years before. Canon Stafford Wright directed my attention to other passages in Blake which no one, Blake himself least of all, would consider taking literally.

    Smith, p. 72.

    If we drop the insistence on the supposed legend, then we are free to take Blake’s opening stanza metaphorically. Perhaps Jesus metaphorically “walked on England’s mountains” because he is present everywhere, or perhaps he was metaphorically “seen on England’s pastures” because the Christian religion was brought to England and people worshipped him there.

  2. No-one knows for sure what Blake meant by “dark Satanic Mills”. There are three main lines of interpretation.

    First, that the “dark Satanic Mills” represent the mills of the industrial revolution. The question mocks this idea with “mill towns had not even been imagined by 1804”, but Blake writes “mills”, not “mill towns”. Industrial mills began to be constructed in the late 18th century, for example Cromford Mill in Derbyshire in 1771, and Albion Mills in London in 1786. The people linking Blake’s “dark Satanic Mills” with Albion Mills make some good points, for example a contemporary “broadside” pamphlet illustrating the burning of the mill in 1791 shows a “devil encouraging the flames with his bellows” (Brian Maidment, Reading Popular Prints 1790-1870, p. 40). So even if this interpretation is unlikely to be Blake’s intention (or not his only intention), it is not ridiculous in the way sometimes suggested.

    Second, that the “dark Satanic Mills” represent some kind of “formative or conditioning process” (OED), grinding up people or their souls in the manner of a mill grinding flour. This is an image from antiquity: an unnamed poet quoted by Sextus Empiricus describes delayed divine vengeance thus:

    ὀψὲ θεῶν ἀλέουσι μύλοι, ἀλέουσι δὲ λεπτά.

    The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small.

    Sextus Empiricus (2nd century). Against Grammarians XIII. Translated by Robert Gregg Bury (1949). In Against the Professors, p. 165. London: William Heinemann.

    The mills of Satan are referred to in Blake’s Milton, perhaps with this kind of meaning, but the text is prophetic rather than clear:

    But Satan returning to his Mills (for Palamabron had serv’d
    ⁠The Mills of Satan as the easier task) found all confusion […]

    And the Mills of Satan were separated into a moony Space
    Among the rocks of Albion’s Temples, and Satan’s Druid sons
    Offer the Human Victims throughout all the Earth, and Albion’s
    Dread Tomb, immortal on his Rock, overshadow’d the whole Earth […]

    Urizen’s sons here labour also; & here are seen the Mills
    ⁠Of Theotormon† on the verge of the Lake of Udan-Adan.
    These are the starry voids of night & the depths & caverns of earth.
    These Mills are oceans, clouds & waters ungovernable in their fury:
    Here are the stars created & the seeds of all things planted,
    And here the Sun & Moon received their fixed destinations.

    William Blake (1810). Milton: A Poem in Two Books. Wikisource.

    † Theotormon’s name means, roughly, “God-tormented”.

    These passages suggest that Blake’s “mills” do not have a single schematic significance, but represent forces or mechanisms that might include industrial mills, or the Church of England, or the machinations of Satan, or divine punishment, or the chaos of nature, or other things.

    Third, that the “dark Satanic Mills” represent the Church of England, as claimed in the question. The earliest account of it that I have been able to trace is

    Blake was particularly hostile towards conventional religion and especially the Church of England which he included amongst the ‘dark Satanic Mills’ in And did those feet in ancient time.

    Mike Davis & Alan Pound, eds. (1996). Selected Poems of William Blake, p. 156. London: Heinemann.

    but this does not actually give us an argument, so it is hard to evaluate. It seems to be a biographical interpretation, based on Blake’s non-conformist views.

  3. In the context of Blake’s metaphorical and allusive imagery, I don’t think this premise in tenable. We can choose to read the phrase, if we need to, as “builded here, [which is now] among these dark Satanic Mills?”.

  1. Again, in the context of Blake’s use of prophecy and metaphor, we’re not in position to be dogmatic about the range of possible interpretations.
  1. This premise seems correct to me!

So, putting all this together, the state of the evidence does not justify dogmatism on points 1, 2, 3 and 5, and so Blake’s supposed use of the past tense to refer to the future does not require explanation.

  • Wow, so the poem might not be referring either to Jesus visiting Britain or to the mills of the Industrial Revolution? Maybe the OP is right that it's one of the most broadly and popularly misinterpreted poems of all time!
    – Rand al'Thor
    Oct 28, 2021 at 8:05
  • Perhaps the mills were suggested by Milton (= mill-town)? Oct 28, 2021 at 9:13
  • Nice answer. A couple of points: 1) see one of my comments above: suggestion that the myth was, prior to 1895, that Joseph of Arimathea (Jesus's uncle, I believe) visited, on his own. He would have had "ancient feet", but it would have made the "spiritual weight" of these lines so much less, indeed it changes the meaning completely; 2) regarding late 18th C mills: mostly they were in fact built in the countryside, by canals: see my answer here: literature.stackexchange.com/a/19845/791. Agricultural (summer)/cottage industry (winter) work was also VERY hard. Life was hard. Oct 28, 2021 at 15:42
  • Regarding premise 2, and your discussion of it. I have to take issue with this in light of extra-textual evidence (i.e. Blake's writings elsewhere): Blake was extremely hostile, not to the C of E in particular, but to organised religion. The classic poem for this is The Garden of Love. OTOH I think you're right that the "mills" may be a much wider symbol, probably of suppression of spiritual freedom. I don't see how it can credibly be asserted that this is not about contemporary (1804) Britain, though. Oct 28, 2021 at 15:50
  • Finally, see my comments following Chappo's comments: I have come round to the view that in fact it is Parry's anthem which conveys an unambivalent sense of yearning, but that on the textual (and other evidence), there is certainly a distinct probability that Blake's intention was not "past for the future". In the end, I'm less clear what Blake is trying to accomplish (or say, or mean) with this pair of lines. Oct 28, 2021 at 15:56

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