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The short poem Jerusalem by William Blake - not to be confused with his much longer epic poem of the same title; I'm talking about the "did those feet in ancient times" one - contains the following lines:

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

What are the "dark Satanic Mills"?

The obvious, and most literal, interpretation would be that they're meant to be the industrial mills which were appearing all over England around the time Blake wrote this poem, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. But I've heard other theories, such as that they're meant to represent churches (Blake was a "radical Christian" who had little time for the established church) or even the academic institutions of Oxford and Cambridge. I'm interested in seeing evidence for different interpretations here.

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To approach this question, it's worth looking at the entirety of the passage that precedes it:

The stolen and perverted writings of Homer and Ovid, of Plato and Cicero, which all men ought to contemn, are set up by artifice against the Sublime of the Bible; but when the New Age is at leisure to pronounce, all will be set right, and those grand works of the more ancient, and consciously and professedly Inspired men will hold their proper rank, and the Daughters of Memory shall become the Daughters of Inspiration. Shakspeare and Milton were both curb’d by the general malady and infection from the silly Greek and Latin slaves of the sword.

Rouse up, O Young Men of the New Age! Set your foreheads against the ignorant hirelings! For we have hirelings in the Camp, the Court, and the University, who would, if they could, for ever depress mental, and prolong corporeal war. Painters! on you I call. Sculptors! Architects! suffer not the fashionable fools to depress your powers by the prices they pretend to give for contemptible works, or the expensive advertising boasts that they make of such works: believe Christ and His Apostles that there is a class of men whose whole delight is in destroying. We do not want either Greek or Roman models if we are but just and true to our own Imaginations, those Worlds of Eternity in which we shall live for ever, in Jesus our Lord.

Blake contrasts Graeco-Roman ideals to Judaeo-Christian ones. The arts of the classical world are inspired by the muses, i.e., the daughters of Mnemosyne, the Greek personification of memory. Something that relies on memory is by definition a recapitulation, i.e., not new and fresh. Blake seeks to institute radically new art that would be rooted in imagination rather than memory. This imagination would be inspired by the eternal world of Jerusalem. Even though Jerusalem itself is obviously old in a temporal sense, because Christian truth is eternal, it is always radically new. So when Blake says he will not rest

Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land

it's not so much a rebuilding of something that was once there, as a recapturing of the radical, eternal promise of Christianity.

Blake's own answer to the question he asks in the lines you quote is obviously "yes": England, too, shared God's presence and it too has been, is, and can be Jerusalem. The present state of England is fallen and corrupt, much as Shakespeare's and Milton's poetry is. But even among the Satanic mills of current-day England, Jerusalem lives on eternally.

So what are these satanic mills? In Blake's contemporary context, they're obviously the mills of the Industrial Revolution. But there's also a contrast between these satanic mills and the divine mill; proverbially, God's mill grinds slow but sure.

Against the rapidity of factory life in late 18th C England, Blake posits the slow workings of eternity. Just as God's face once shone on what are now clouded hills, the mills of London obscure what was once Jerusalem. Nevertheless, those mills, being Satanic, are just part of temporality, and mere excrescences on the eternal truth of Christianity.

From this perspective, it makes sense to see the mills as actual mills. I'm sure Blake would agree that the churches of his day were part of the temporal corruption of the eternal truth of Christianity; nevertheless, there's no warrant for saying that the mills are not straightforwardly mills.

  • I feel compelled to add that of course I'm merely interpreting what Blake says. It doesn't follow that I agree with him. I've always found Blake rather silly. – verbose Jan 25 '17 at 4:21
  • "In Blake's contemporary context, they're obviously the mills of the Industrial Revolution." - how is this obvious? Some critics of the poem disagree with this interpretation. I think you need more justification for your interpretation; at present, this answer has a lot of surrounding discussion, and not much about the actual question except to say "it's obvious" and "it makes sense". – Rand al'Thor Jan 25 '17 at 13:44
  • The "surrounding discussion" is meant to show how eager Blake was to break through the immediate world to arrive at an eternal world. The "mills" are intended to represent the corrupt world that encompasses "the Camp, the Court, and the University", and the established church as well. But why would Blake choose mills to represent this corruption if they weren't the most visible and conspicuous structures of his time, physically, economically, and psychologically? It seems beyond perverse to say that a mill is not a mill; if that's what some prefer to believe, I can only shrug. – verbose Jan 26 '17 at 20:20
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    Based on the working conditions in factories of the time, I'd say categorizing them as Satanic is on point. (If you want to split hairs, you might say "Mammonic", but I see little difference.) See: Mrs. Warren's Profession. From a mythological perspective, it's worth noting that recent, highly regarded SciFi writers have posited that the danger to humanity re: Artificial Intelligence arises out of economic imperatives, and in the case of Rajaniemi, the basis for this idea is mathematical, and derives from Game Theory. – DukeZhou Feb 16 '18 at 20:49
  • Specifically related to the coal age, this evil still persists in bad actors like Massey Energy, who routinely put profits ahead of worker safety. See also: Matewan. Was Blake sometimes whimsical? Maybe... Was he prescient and getting right to the root of the most important issues in a form accessible even to small children? Unequivocally. [upvote for the great answer though!] – DukeZhou Feb 16 '18 at 20:54
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I agree with @verbose, there is no reason to assume Blake didn't mean mills or factories when he said Mills. If drawing a parallel to churches does exist it is fairly subtle.

Here's another way to look at this. Good poetry is evocative. Imagine you are Blake writing contemporaneously. You are probably smart enough to draw parallels between churches and mills - not least as physical structures and places where humans congregate. And he would also know that some of his readers were also capable of drawing such connotations.

Obviously poetry in general contains suggestive references and metaphors, Blake's work is no different. Blake writes of mills and churches in his other works - especially The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Blake was also critical of the Church.

It would be a convenient veil to talk of 'Mills', which could be criticised for invading the countryside, when you actually wanted to criticise the Church.

I think based on this we have a scenario where Blake was aware that talking about mills juxtaposed with religious and spiritual references would be suggestive enough to lead some people to think also of churches. At the very least describing Mills as Satanic conjures up thoughts of worship. How far Blake wanted to take that is open for debate.

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