I was listening to the song “Jerusalem“(1) and was struck with the oddity of the phrase “dark Satanic mills” among depictions of “England’s mountains green” and the establishment of a new Heaven (a/k/a Jerusalem) there. Blake poses these bucolic visions of beauteous England with heavenly pastures and clouded hills then plops down some odious hulking factory spewing viscous smoke and spitting brimstone. According to University of Houston’s John Lienhard, Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering and History, Blake refers to the Industrial Revolution by the phrase “dark Satanic mills.”
The Industrial Revolution turned civilization on its head. We once lived a largely agrarian, rural way of living. With the Industrial Revolution, we became an industrialized, urban-centered society in roughly 150 years. The railroads transported materials and goods widely from around the 1830s. Whether flour, bricks, cotton, or steel mills, the smokestacks darkened the skies and sulfured the air. One can imagine the hum of industry in the cities and the phenomenal social changes.
I grew up in Pittsburgh, the “Steel City,” before the demise of the steel industry in the late 1970s. At night the sky glowed red from the blast furnaces less than two miles from my bed. Rather than thinking of the mills as being “satanic,” they provided me and the other residents of the area with a stability and identity. For the longest time, Pittsburgh was steel. Long before steel, Pittsburgh was glass. The area has been synonymous with industrial activity for centuries.
People flocked to the region to work in the mills. Workers received relatively high wages. Aye, the work was dirty and dangerous. However, the mills symbolized opportunity, prosperity, and pride. I can imagine that the nascent Industrial Revolution in England had the same allure for workers there. More than one worker who left for the big city sent money to support his family back home.
If we think deeply about the changes that occurred during that time, we might opine that it was the change in the social dynamic that could have seemed “satanic,” and not just the mills. Spewing smoke, noise, and sparks, some industrial facilities could have seemed like Hell on Earth.
But look what they led to. Life today. Certainly we’re not living in Heaven, but we’re also not living in Hell.
Or are we?