12

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.

0
11

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.

5
  • 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
  • 1
    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
3

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.

2

From Verbose's answer: "In Blake's contemporary context, they're obviously the mills of the Industrial Revolution"

Hardly.

In 1804 there were no mill towns and very few mills in towns: the image conjured up in the popular imagination by the expression "Dark Satanic Mills", of tens of factories belching out smoke and turning the sky dark, is not one any human being would even have imagined in 1804. Such landscapes only started to appear circa 1840s.

Arkwright and others built coal-powered mills starting in the 1770s. These were not the first powered mills: mills powered by rivers, wind or animals had existed for centuries. Invariably the new coal-powered variety were stand-alone "plants" built in the countryside, particularly close to canals so that large quantities of coal could be delivered to them cheaply - roads at the time were few and usually just dirt tracks, and the canals were a crucial factor in ushering in the industrial revolution, a kind of superhighway between coal mines, the new powered mills and the hubs of production of raw materials and of consumption.

These coal-powered mills were surrounded by countryside. Working conditions were generally better than in the later intense phase of the industrial revolution, and wages were much better than for hard and unhealthy agricultural work.

By "Dark Satanic Mills" Blake thus unquestionably means the churches of the Established Church (Church of England). They were "dark" and "satanic" because, as Blake saw it, their primary function was to suppress the natural cravings for truth and freedom of the ordinary people whose lives they blighted, with "mind-forged manacles".

This is a powerful expression, precisely because of the metaphor of mills: by 1804 someone like Blake would have been able to observe the new industrial mills in operation. It is important to understand that there is no evidence for explicit or even implicit criticism of the industrial culture they were to usher in in Blake's writing: he did not foresee this. Most people lived a precarious hand-to-mouth existence in the fields in Britain then, working very long and hard days and enlisting the labour of small children at times of intense agricultural activity: similar working conditions in the mills did not single out the mills as uniquely egregious. Life for most people was egregious.

What Blake did observe, however, is that mills churned out vast quantities of products, all of them alike, and this is the force of the metaphor: churches similarly churned out souls, stripped, as he sees it, of the aspirations and individuality which are human beings' spiritual birthright.

3
  • From a deposition to Parliament in 1816: "What is the earliest at which children have been employed in your mills within the last three years?"—"From seven to eight." ... "What instruction have the children belonging to your mills?"—"We have a Sunday school at the works." "Are the children employed in such work as could not well be done by persons that are grown up?"—..."We could not afford to employ grown-up persons."
    – Peter Shor
    Oct 25 at 18:46
  • And you claim that Blake wouldn't possibly have called these mills dark and Satanic? They make young children work 12 hours a day, with only short breaks for meals (brought to them). They give them extremely perfunctory education. Probably the air in the mills is not very healthy (the children occasionally get asthma). So maybe in retrospect, they are not as dark and Satanic as the ones that were prevalent 40 years later, but ...
    – Peter Shor
    Oct 25 at 19:01
  • 1
    I agree about the long hours and the child labour, this is all documented: in this way, mill work was no better (or worse) than agricultural work at the time. Context is absolutely everything here though: the poem commonly known as "Jerusalem" is supremely rhetorical and emotional: it is quite clear, particularly in light of everything we know about Blake from his writings and life, that the poem operates in the domain of myth, not of "banal" social criticism. Blake was not complaining about powered mills in 1804 but about organised religion. Oct 25 at 19:26

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.