By Dr Oliver Tearle
Let’s begin with a quiz question: what is the title of the poem in which the phrase ‘dark Satanic Mills’ appears? Is it a) ‘Jerusalem’ or b) Milton? Most people would probably go for a), but although we know commonly know William Blake’s poem (or the words to the hymn ‘Jerusalem’, taken from Blake’s poem) by that title, strictly speaking those ‘dark Satanic Mills’ first appeared in a much longer work, an epic poem titled Milton: A Poem (1804-8).
Okay, well let’s try another question. Which poet do we have to thank for the hymn known as ‘Jerusalem’: a) William Blake, or b) Robert Bridges?
This one is a bit trickier, in that we obviously have a) to thank for the words to the hymn, because he wrote them. But we have b) to thank for suggesting the idea of the hymn itself: curiously, it was Robert Bridges, who was also the one who got Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poems into print, who suggested (to the composer, Hubert Parry) the idea of setting the words of Blake’s poem to music.
‘Jerusalem’ is one of the most famous hymns around, a sort of alternative national anthem for England. The second of the hymn’s four verses runs:
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Blake (1757-1827) wrote many famous short poems, but none is quite so familiar to us as the one now known as ‘Jerusalem’. And this one short poem has given us a raft of now famous phrases: ‘chariot of fire’, ‘green and pleasant land’, and ‘dark Satanic Mills’. But what does Blake mean by referring to ‘dark Satanic Mills’?
To answer that question, it’s worth bearing in mind the questions asked in the first two stanzas: they refer, of course, to Jesus Christ and the idea that he may have travelled to England with Joseph of Arimathea:
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
Did Jesus – known also as Agnus Dei, the ‘holy Lamb of God’ – travel to England, and did he build a Holy Land, a Jerusalem, among this English landscape, which is now (in Blake’s time) marked by the ‘dark Satanic Mills’ found across the countryside?
So, is the poem a patriotic paean to England, with its landscape, its Christian foundations, its courage and indomitable spirit? Well, perhaps not.
After all, the finest phrase in the poem, ‘dark Satanic Mills’, tells a different, less rosy story. It’s a nod to a key context for Blake’s poetry – indeed, much Romantic poetry – namely, the Industrial Revolution. Those dark satanic mills are often interpreted as being the mills of industry. Indeed, in the longer poem Milton from which the words to ‘Jerusalem’ are taken, Satan is described as the ‘Miller of Eternity’.
But they may not refer to the cotton mills of the Industrial Revolution. Instead, ‘Mills’ may be a nod to steam-powered flour mills rather than cotton factories, as Peter Ackroyd, Roy Porter, and others have suggested. Curiously, Blake may have had specific mills in mind: the Albion Flour Mills near his home. The Albion Flour Mills on Blackfriars Road in London burned down in 1791, and a ballad was written about them.
However, ‘Mills’ may even have another meaning, for in Blake’s poem they may be metaphorical. An alternative interpretation is that the ‘dark Satanic Mills’ refer to churches rather than literal mills, and to institutional religion in particular. Elsewhere in his poetry, Blake certainly uses mills as a metaphor for the Church of England. There would be a delicious irony, after all, in describing churches of all places as satanic mills.
And everyone knows the section of Blake’s longer work which begins ‘And did those feet in ancient time’, but hardly anyone knows the other lines from the ‘Jerusalem’ section of Milton. These lines include:
The fields from Islington to Marylebone,
To Primrose Hill and Saint John’s Wood,
Were builded over with pillars of gold;
And there Jerusalem’s pillars stood.
Her little ones ran on the fields,
The Lamb of God amongst them seen
And fair Jerusalem was his bride,
Among the little meadows green.
They groaned aloud on London Stone,
They groaned aloud on Tyburn’s Brook
Albion gave his deadly groan,
And all the Atlantic mountains shook.
Here ‘Albion’ may carry double significance, being not just the old name for England but also the name for those recently destroyed flour mills powered by steam, found in Blake’s own city of London. Those ‘dark Satanic Mills’ are ambiguous in Blake’s poem, but there may be a very strong link with a specific local mill that tied ‘Albion’ to ‘Albion’ in such a way that Blake couldn’t resist the suggestive symbolism of the shared names.