Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1413:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1413.

Today, Romantic poets and 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.

You probably saw the movie Chariots of Fire back in 1981. But you may not know that the title is a phrase from an English hymn sung in the background near the beginning of the movie. The words by poet William Blake seem at first seem to portray the Industrial Revolution as a form of human evil. He says:

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

Robert Burns said much the same thing when he first saw the fire and smoke of the Carron Iron Works in 1787:

We cam na here to view your warks
In hopes to be mair wise,
But only, lest we gang to Hell,
It may be nae surprise.

By the early 19th century a return-to-nature movement was sweeping England. The Romantic poets wanted to tap into nature's wild forces. Nature hadn't looked so pretty when life was a struggle to create minimal physical well-being in a seemingly hostile world. But now the new factories were providing goods and implements by which people could live more amicable lives.

The problem is, those works started obscuring nature. As they did, poets and artists began to make nature into something it'd never quite been. But, while Burns saw nature as beautiful, it was still a dark and formidable Gothic presence:

Farewell to the forests and wild-hanging woods;
Farewell to the torrents and loud-pouring floods.

Percy Shelley, a little younger and more the creature of the fully-evolved Romantic movement, saw nature in more benign terms:

Sweet oracles of woods and dells,
And summer winds in sylvan cells;

Nevertheless, Hellish mills were replacing both Scott's and Shelley's visions of nature with their harsh brush strokes of fire and iron. Yet it was William Blake who also said: "Nature without man is barren." He saw that we're ultimately responsible for reclaiming nature. His "Chariots of Fire" text ends like this:

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.

Blake, the sensible observer of the human lot, outlines our responsibility. We can't shrink from the mental fight of building a world fit for habitation. When he asks for his bow, arrows, spear, and chariot of fire, he's reaching for tools with which to build that world. He's arming for mental fight. He realized that, from now on, nature would shine through the fire and mills only if we had the wits to make it do so.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Klingender, F.D., ART, and the Industrial Revolution. New York: Augustus M. Kelley Publishers, 1968.

This is a greatly revised version of Episode 18.

Image courtesy of Special Collections, UH Library

An Illustration by William Blake for Erasmus Darwin's
The Botanic Garden, 1799

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1999 by John H. Lienhard.