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William Blake’s poem ‘And did those feet in ancient time’ (1808) contains the lines

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

The meaning of the phrase “dark Satanic Mills” is obscure, and several interpretations have been offered. Wikipedia says:

Another interpretation, amongst Nonconformists, is that the phrase refers to the established Church of England.

Is this a genuine interpretation among nonconformists? If so, who originated this interpretation, and what was their argument for it? The earliest mention of the interpretation that I was able to find is here:

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 is not quite the same as the claim in Wikipedia, for Davis and Pound only claim that the Church is among the Mills, not that the Mills refer to the Church specifically. Also, Davis and Pound did not give an argument for this interpretation, nor a citation to anyone making such an argument.

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  • Great question! If this interpretation didn't appear until the 20th century, you could claim that it demonstrates the evils of close reading.
    – Peter Shor
    Apr 24 at 12:57
  • @PeterShor I suspect that the interpretation comes from biographical criticism rather than close reading. That is: the narrator of the poem dislikes the dark Satanic Mills; Blake disliked the Church of England; therefore, the dark Satanic Mills represent the Church of England. But maybe the argument will turn out to be better than that. Apr 24 at 13:56
  • It was close reading, but I expect biographical criticism also played a role.
    – Peter Shor
    Apr 24 at 19:48

1 Answer 1

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David Daiches, in his book Critical Approaches to Literature (1956) (borrowed via the Internet Archive) says

Sometimes scholarship can produce startling interpretations of the meaning of a work, e.g. F.W. Bateson's demonstration, in his English Poetry: A Critical Introduction (1950) that Blake's well-known poem "And did those feet in ancient time," sung throughout England as a hymn, was written as an anti-ecclesiastical manifesto, in praise of free love, and the "dark satanic mills" have no reference to the Industrial Revolution but refer to the altars of Anglican churches. What happens, then, to the poem that everybody has taken it to be for so long?

So how does F.W. Bateson derive his conclusions? His book is available here on the Internet Archive in the 1957 edition (he seems to have modified this passage in later editions). I won't reproduce the full argument here, but just some of it. You can read the rest of it yourself, and decide whether you find it plausible.

Blake's poem comes as a preface to his long poem Milton. In this poem, Blake writes

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:
⁠Where Satan making to himself Laws from his own identity
Compell'd others to serve him in moral gratitude & submission
Being call'd God: setting himself above all that is called God.

From this, he concludes that "the rocks of Albion's temples" were the altars of Anglican churches, and that the "dark Satanic Mills" in Blake's poem "And did those feet in ancient time" were to be identified with these altars.

And how did he get that it was written in praise of free love? In a later long poem, called Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, Blake writes

Such Visions have appear'd to me,
As I my order’d course have run:
Jerusalem is nam’d Liberty
Among the sons of Albion.

From this, he concludes that Jerusalem stands for sexual liberty, i.e., free love.

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    This looks very plausible as the origin of the idea, thank you! (I am not convinced, however, because if one is going to deduce the meaning of "Mills" from the very obscure text of Milton, then to avoid the appearance of cherry-picking, one ought to consider all the instances: not just "among the rocks of Albion's Temples", but also "starry voids of night & the depths & caverns of earth" and "oceans, clouds & waters" too.) Apr 24 at 21:00
  • 1
    Bateson doesn't seem to cite anybody, so I would assume that it was his idea. And ironically, in Bateson's revised 1978 edition of his book, Blake's poem is discussed without any mention of "sexual liberty" or the altars of Anglican churches. So possibly Bateson concluded he was mistaken, although his analysis lives on.
    – Peter Shor
    Apr 24 at 21:51

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