meanings and origin of the British phrase ‘(dark) satanic mills’

The British-English phrase (dark) satanic mills denotes industrial mills or factories—especially those of Britain in the nineteenth century—associated with harsh working conditions and regarded as representing exploitative and dehumanising industrialisation.

This phrase alludes to And did those feet in ancient time [note 1], a poem from the preface to Milton, by the English artist and poet William Blake (1757-1827):

(as printed circa 1811 – source: The William Blake Archive)

And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

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

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold:
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.

The following illustrates the common association of Blake’s “dark satanic mills” with the Industrial Revolution—it is from Bookland: An Introduction to English Literature (London: George Philip & Son Ltd., 1921), by William Henry King:

[…] the Industrial Revolution. During that dark period of our history, when the country was passing from the beauty of its agricultural life into the wild welter of black industrialism, the soul of the land passed under a cloud. The age was one of discontent, but a noble discontent. It found its voice in Blake, who, pondering on the dark, Satanic mills, cried:—
‘I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant Land.’

According to the Taunton Courier (Taunton, Somerset, England) of Wednesday 31st May 1922, Mr. A. E. Morgan, M.A., Professor in English to the University College, Exeter, gave the same interpretation of Blake’s “dark satanic mills” in an address on “The Necessity of Poetry” that he delivered on Friday 26th May 1922 to Taunton Rotarians:

What was the attitude of Tennyson [note 2] and Ruskin [note 3] towards art? Great as these men were, and great as their contributions had been towards the literature of this country, their attitude towards art was a wrong one. They looked round on the ugliness which was produced by the social and industrial changes, and turned away from it. Men like Ruskin and Tennyson, though fully conscious of the condition of the age, had to have some way out of it, and they built fairy palaces to which their spirits could go to spend an emotional week-end. This was a great disservice to poetry, because they suggested that poetry was something removed from life, whereas it was intrinsically a part of life, and it could not be true poetry unless it was a real and true expression of the life of the people as a whole. At the same time they saw the full effects of the industrial revolution which the materialists were imposing upon England, as Blake saw the Black Country [note 4], “with its dark, Satanic mills.”

The earliest occurrences of the phrase (dark) satanic mills that I have found are from The Globe and Traveller (London, England) of Tuesday 11th March 1913—Joseph Pennell (1857-1926) was an U.S. artist and author:

MR. PENNELL’S ART.
GLORY OF SMOKE AND GRIME.
DARK SATANIC MILLS.”
(SPECIAL TO “THE GLOBE.”)

Work to-day is the most wonderful thing in the world, and the artist who best records it will be best remembered.
In this sentence Mr. Joseph Pennell gives expression to the motive of his art. He is the modern apostle of the beauty of work. Not only has he drawn for the delight of the lover of beautiful things many of the scenes which in Europe and America are admittedly picturesque, but he has shown the loveliness of what is usually considered ugly. His etchings and lithographs have pictured thedark Satanic millsof industrial England and Belgium, revealing a beauty in their mass and line, and in the light and shade of the smoke clouds which hang over them which has hitherto been little recognised.
In an interview with a representative, Mr. Pennell said that he painted scenes in industrial towns because he believed them to be picturesque. “Here, for instance,” he said, selecting an etching from a portfolio, “is a picture of the Mond Gas Works [note 5]. I did not know what they were when I saw them, nor did I care very much; but I caught sight of the huge erection from the train as I travelled from Birmingham to Wolverhampton, and recognising immediately that the line and mass were beautiful, I got off at the next station and walked back and drew them.”

Mond Gas, Dudleyport – etching, 1909, by Joseph Pennell—from Catalogue of the etchings of Joseph Pennell. Compiled by Louis A. Wuerth (Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown, and Company – 1928):

Mond Gas, Dudleyport – etching, 1909, by Joseph Pennell

 

The second-earliest occurrence of (dark) satanic mills that I have found is from The Womanhood of Modern Japan, by Gwendoline R. Barclay, “(Girton College,) (Sometime Y.W.C.A. Secretary in Tokio.)”, published in News of the Young Women’s Christian Association throughout the World—itself published as a supplement to The International Woman Suffrage News (London, England) of March 1921:

Japan was, until a few decades back, an almost exclusively agricultural country, but to-day some 900,000 of her women are employed in factories. […] The conditions in many of the factories are closely parallel to those which prevailed at the time of our own industrial revolution at the beginning of the nineteenth century […].
Long hours of work and the all too common night shifts, lack of proper ventilation in the work rooms, lack of recreation, of sleeping accommodation, of medical attendance, and of moral and spiritual instruction, the slovenly, tragically unintellectual appearance of the average factory girl—all these, and worse, conditions are to be found in what can only be described by Blake’s epithet, thesatanic millsof Japan.

The phrase (dark) satanic mills has come to be applied to all working places characterised by exploitative and dehumanising forms of labour—as exemplified by the following from The Sunday Tribune (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Sunday 7th March 1999:

Satanic mills’ and ignorance
Those working in teleservices dispute the poor image of the sector

With labels such as ‘the sweatshops of the 21st century’ attaching themselves to call centres, it’s no wonder the sector is experiencing recruitment difficulties.
Recent reports from the UK have done nothing to enhance the image of jobs in the teleservices industries – the working environment has been likened to a battery farm with employees confined to small cubicles and force-fed an unrelenting diet of calls under the strictest supervision.
However, that image is refuted by those involved in Ireland’s teleservices industry.

In the following from the football section of the Irish Independent (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Monday 22nd September 2008, the phrase (dark) satanic mills is used as an epithet for Lancashire—a county of north-western England—regarded as an industrial region:

BOLTON 1
ARSENAL 3
Phil Shaw
For Arsenal, it’s no longer grim up north.
Successive triumphs amid the dark satanic mills and hills of Lancashire, where Arsene Wenger’s teams have sometimes failed to meet the physical challenge, point to a young side now allying the resilience required of title contenders to quality which beaten manager Gary Megson believes is “as good as you’ll see throughout the world.”

 

NOTES

 

1 William Blake’s poem is now best known as the hymn Jerusalem, with music written in 1916 by the English composer Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918); Jerusalem has acquired the status of a national song.

 

2 Alfred Tennyson (1809-92) was an English poet.

 

3 John Ruskin (1819-1900) was an English art and social critic.

 

4 The term Black Country designates an area of the West Midlands of England which, especially in the nineteenth century, was blackened by the smoke and dust of the coal and iron trades there. This area includes southern Staffordshire and the country to the west of Birmingham.

 

5 This is a reference to Tipton’s Mond Gas Works—Tipton, in the Black Country, is located about halfway between Birmingham and Wolverhampton.

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