Today, we learn what some contemporary poets had to say
about the Industrial Revolution. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this series
about the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
Not everyone who was charmed by
the movie Chariots of Fire knows the source
of its title. Actually, it's a phrase from an English
hymn that's sung rather briefly near the beginning of the
movie. The words, by the poet William Blake, at first
seem to portray the Industrial Revolution as a
manifestation of human evil. He says:
reacted in much the same way when he saw the fire and smoke
of the Carron Iron Works in 1787:
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?
By the early 19th century a kind of
environmental movement had arisen in England. It took the
form of romantic naturalism. Nature had never looked very
pretty to people who spent their life locked in combat with
it, but as the works of man started to cover it up, poets
and artists began to make nature into something it had
never quite been. But, while Burns saw nature as beautiful,
it was still a dark and formidable Gothic presence:
We came not here to view your works
In hopes to be more wise,
But only, lest we go to Hell,
It may be no surprise.
Farewell to the forests and wild-hanging woods;For his contemporary, Percy Shelley, it was gentler:
Farewell to the torrents and loud-pouring floods.
Hellish mills were indeed replacing the wild
natural beauty of Scott's world -- and the sweet natural
beauty of Shelley's. But it was William Blake who also said
that "Nature without man is barren." He understood that
we're ultimately responsible for reclaiming nature. His
"Chariots of Fire" text ends like this:
Sweet oracles of woods and dells,
And summer winds in sylvan cells;
He's outlining our responsibility -- we must
not shrink from mental fight 'til we've built a world fit
for habitation. When Blake asks for his bow, his arrows,
his spear, and his chariot of fire, he's reaching for the
tools with which to build a better world. He's arming for
mental fight. And that's what we have to do.
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 and pleasant land.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Klingender, F.D., ART, and the Industrial
Revolution. New York: Augustus M. Kelley Publishers,
Several later episodes deal with this theme. See, for
example, Episode 335. This
episode itself has been rewritten as Episode 1413.
Image courtesy of Special Collections, UH
An Illustration by William Blake for Erasmus Darwin's The Botanic Garden
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2018 by John H.