These dark satanic mills

cooling towers

Didcot Power Station

These are the cooling towers and chimneys of Didcot Power Station, near where I live. The Power Station consists of two generating plants: Didcot A, coal-fired and Didcot B, gas fired. Didcot A closed as a generating plant in March 2013 and is due for demolition, which will see the well-known landmarks of the cooling towers disappear from the landscape sometime in 2014.

I wanted to have photographs of these landmarks before they disappear and took the opportunity this month. This photograph was taken from Sutton Courtenay looking south towards the power station. At the time I was taking this photo I was thinking of the effect of contrast created by the contre-jour aspect and although shooting in colour was already thinking of a mono conversion in editing. This brought to mind the phrase, “these dark satanic mills”, which I have always associated with the mills of the industrial revolution and so was thinking of the contemporary revolution in which we are ever looking for cleaner and more environmentally-friendly means of power generation, industrial production, travel etc. I was thinking that whereas the dark satanic mills of the industrial revolution were seen as detrimental to those who worked in them, perhaps this power station stood as a symbol of a means of production that had been detrimental to the environment and therefore a dark satanic mill of a different sort.

With those thoughts in mind I returned home and set about some research into “these dark satanic mills”. I was surprised to learn that this phrase actually comes from William Blake’s Jerusalem:

“And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s 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 England’s green & pleasant Land”      (emphasis added)

Further reading showed that there are broadly two schools of opinion regarding these dark satanic mills.

One is that it does indeed refer to the mills of the industrial revolution. The other is that it refers to the established Church of England and the formality of the cathedrals and large churches. Blake was a Christian and, it seems, quite critical of conventional religion and so the reference to the established church as dark satanic mills could be taken to suggest that he was criticising a mode of religion that sought to limit and control people. The likely reality, perhaps, is that he was using the term as a metaphor and that it therefore held meaning in both senses.

So, it was interesting to discover all this additional information about these dark satanic mills. Does it change what I was thinking when I took this photograph? No, but it does now make me think that perhaps I should get a similar photograph of a cathedral, place the two side-by-side and consider the wider issues once I’ve thought about it a little more.

My goodness, photography can be educational.

For those interested, this photograph was taken using a Canon EOS 70D set to ISO 100, shooting at 1,000sec at f8, on a focal length of 55mm. It was shot in RAW format then processed and converted to monochrome, to reflect the feel of “these dark satanic mills”.


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