The William Blake Blog

Review: Lucy Cogan – Blake and the Failure of Prophecy
A review of Lucy Cogan's study of how Blake's perceptions of prophecy changed during his long career.

Lucy Cogan begins her introduction to Blake and the Failure of Prophecy with the poet’s observation in his annotations to Bishop Watson’s An Apology for the Bible that a prophet's pre­dictions often do not transpire but, rather, are failures: “Prophets in the modern sense of the word have never existed Jonah was no prophet in the modern sense for his prophecy of Nineveh failed Every honest man is a Prophet he utters his opinion both of private & public matters[.]” (Cited 1) While Blake's defence of the Deist Paine against Watson (who wrote An Apology as an attack on Paine's The Age of Reason) would seem counter-intuitive at first glance, Cogan is right to assert that Paine’s deeply held beliefs are closer to what Blake understood as true prophecy. What, then, does such an assertion have to tell us about what Blake understood prophecy to be? An important starting point for the book is that Blake's prophetic mode rejects “limited, empirical information drawn from the senses and embraces a perspective in which metaphor and identity are one" (5).

Following Chris Burdock’s suggestion in Romantic Prophecy (2016) that we move away from interpreting prophecy as a discursive phenomenon towards understanding it as a phenomenological experience - an enhanced sensi­tivity to the times we live in rather than a way of speaking about them - Blake's deployment of prophecy comes at an important turning point in radicalism in Britain. According to this model, the Bible is not a literary but rather a vocational model for Blake, one from which he can construct the role of the prophet in a time of crisis. However, this should not forget, as Cogan suggests - invoking Peter Otto - to examine whether Blake's prophecies actually work, and how he imagine his interventions would affect events. Many of the Old Testament prophets, particularly those from before the Babylonian exile, did not merely speak truth to power, but also sought to chart an alternate course for their people and change their behaviour. By contrast, for many of the prophets after the exile, particularly those who did not have direct access to the levers of power, their vision would be vindicated by later events - hence our understanding of prophecy as prediction. Blake in the early 1790s probably saw himself as a prophet of the earlier type, effecting change, but as the years wore on then he may have looked more to future vindication. In addition, following his vision in 1802 at Felpham, he came to see prophecy as a personal encounter with the divine. As such, "Blake saw himself as a prophet tasked with opening the people's eyes to the revelation of the divine imagination" (22). 

Cogan is right to observe that comparing Blake’s prophetic works across his career shows just how much his “conception of prophecy and the role of the prophet changed" (24), and also that while he experienced many failures, "his writing ultimately represents not the accept­ance of failure but the determination to keep trying" (26). Blake's accounts of his visions demonstrate an experiential dimension of not just how he saw the world but his imaginative way of being in the world. He was also concerned with those who failed in this process of visionary fulfilment on the path from childhood to adulthood, and this notion that visionary faculties are innate in children -but also routinely lost - is established by the time of his first illuminated books between 1788-1790 and the subject of the first chapter of Blake and the Failure of Prophecy after the introduction. For Blake, argues Cogan, the visionary faculty is extremely close to Old Testament accounts, where "seer" is routinely used to describe the prophets. The most extraordinary example of this is that of Ezekiel in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, where Blake has Ezekiel identify this visionary perception as the source of his calling as a prophet. Here, notes Cogan, Blake is rewriting the biblical imperative: rather than operating according to God's command, the prophets are following their liberated, visionary imaginations, as when Isaiah states: “I saw no God. nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discover'd the infinite in every thing.” (Cited 38) Blake's prophets lack the personal relation­ships of their Old Testament precursors, and thus may appear more isolated, but also more autonomous.

The status of childhood visionaries is explored by Cogan in Songs of Innocence.  While this section seems to me to be only tangentially connected to prophecy, she relates it to the question for Blake as to why so few visionaries make it to adult­hood, but instead are snared in the material­istic adult world. In addition, "The Little Girl Lost" in Experience does explicitly invoke prophetic visions, and Cogan's reading of Lyca's story as the visionary process is masterful. Lyca's story also prefaces that of Thel, another girl who faces" the challenge of crossing the threshold into sexual and imaginative maturity" (53) but who refuses to complete the process. Cogan argues that Thel is" blind to the visionary dimension of existence" (53), seeking not to open up her perceptions but rather assimilate nature into her materialistic world view. My own reading of Thel, very much shaped by Helen Bruder, is more sympathetic, but Cogan's interpretation of Oothoon in Visions of the Daughters of Albion is another tour de force, demonstrating how external forces work to subvert Oothoon's moment of liberating prophetic attainment. Both Theotormon & Bromion force a notion of selfhood on Oothoon that "endangers that divine visionary imagination she possessed with such unconscious ease at the beginning of the narrative." (57)

Chapter three is stronger on the central theme, that "Blake's idea of prophecy was never fixed and... changed repeatedly over the course of his career " (67). Turning to The French Revolution, America and Europe, Cogan demonstrates how he reacted to the initial stages of the world-shattering revolution in France to redefine his own role as a poet-prophet: yet while we would expect America and Europe to offer declarations of the prophet's power at a time of radical transformation, both problematize such an approach, in contrast to The French Revolution which "appears at first glance to bear the nearest resemblance to the prophetic mode of popular prophets like Brothers " (69). Yet even the apparently simpler message of that book - that the power of the prophetic voice is such that it can awaken a people - is complicated by the threat, and then the reality, of revolutionary violence. In "A Song of Liberty", com­posed between 1790 and 1793, Blake imagines the American and French revolutions as precursor to a wave of revolutions that will sweep the world, yet he never saw this wave during his lifetime. That Blake is attracted to violent revolution is, suggests Cogan, evident in the emergence of Orc in America. Her reading of the first explicit prophecy by Blake is extraordinary, as in her observation that his violent, apocalyptic revelation offers no future vision of peace or salvation. It is, perhaps, a reimagining of the terms in which Blake understood liberty and revolution in the light of events in 1793. This tension is very much evident in the added Preludium which under­cuts the vigour of Orc as presented in the main prophecy, providing instead a dark vision which becomes even more ambiguous in Europe a Prophecy.

Chapter Four moves on to the remaining Lambeth prophetic books of the 1790s, especially as they focus on the origins of Los. As Cogan observes, however "otherworldly" Blake may have been, he also lived in a real world where radicals were increasingly silenced; as such, from the Urizen books on he no longer saw himself as "a prophet of an imminent, apocalyptic liberation." (99) Likewise, "The years of the mid-1790s saw the joy with which British radicals had greeted the outbreak of the French Revolution succumb to the new reality of suppression and fear" (100) and in this context Blake began to see his earlier prophetic hopes as increasingly ones that would fail. He is also, in the Urizen books, responding to Deist critiques of religion such as by Paine and Volney, although Cogan observes that he would not have considered these as especially devastating to his own faith which was not based in the institutions of organised religion. Instead, he is spurred on by such critiques to "redeem the Bible from its fallen state." (103) Much of this redemptive work, as Cogan rightly point out, is an attempt to understand the binding nature of temporality itself. Urizen sets in motion the fall by blundering into an imposed order that refuses the chaotic, contradictory reality that exists "outside of time". Blake's analyses and repetitions are a formal means to counter the imposition of false, Urizenic order, and Cogan's reading of Urizen's pseudo-heroic creation is enlightening and persuasive. Much of this, however, is relatively familiar - it is her nuanced interpretation of Los that is more remarkable. Firstly, she reminds us not to superimpose the Los of the later illuminated books back on to the 1790 Lambeth Prophecies. More importantly, she observes that while it is commonplace to characterise Los as a poet-prophet, in the Urizen books "although Los is repeatedly called a prophet, he manifestly fails to fulfil his calling." (122) When Los binds Urizen into a material body, this is categorically an indictment of Los who is wholly motivated by fear. What we see in Blake's works from this period, then, is not prophetic liberation but the "betrayal of Eternity." (127) Blake, working through his own complex responses to the earlier appeal of the role of poet-prophet, is willing to cast Los in an ambivalent light - which is, ultimately, an important step in rejecting the fake clarity of Urizenic thinking.

Cogan begins the following chapter with a barb cast at many of those who have interpreted The Four Zoas. If, as Frye asserts, this unfinished epic represents "the totality of what Blake came into the world to say", then "It is a shame... that it is not at all clear what exactly it is saying." (135) By focusing on the (sometimes deliberate) failures of The Four Zoas, she points out that the work demonstrates the trauma of failed vision and of the fatally fragmented self. Despite the related commercial difficulties of reaching an audience with his designs for Young's Night Thoughts, Blake saw something in those designs that inspired his own poem. "Blake's epic represents a sincere effort to work through and conquer the dark horrors of the despairing mind by first mapping them within the self and then subjecting them to a narrative structure in which suffering can be overcome through a renewal of faith." (137) The motor for this transformation is a prophetic renewal of perception. To begin with, Blake seemed to have been attempting to organise a coherent narrative from his 1790s illuminated books, but by the early 19th century he reworked the narrative more conceptually to demonstrate particular aspects of each zoa. In the process, however, the visionary faculty of the text deteriorates, demon­strating what Ricœur called the "hermeneutic of suspicion". Cogan is very good in sharing how the differing visionary perspectives - particularly those of female prophetic figures - undermine the coherent narrative. By the end of his epic, she concludes, Blake needed a fresh start in order to place Los at the centre of prophetic experience.

This fresh start came in 1800, and is indicated in a letter in which Blake recounts to Thomas Butts a vision he experienced in Felpham: it was from this time on, Cogan suggests, that he developed a new conception of visionary power as both "immanent and transcendent at once, infinitely aware of but no longer confined by the concepts of time and space." (167) He also came closer from this moment on to the prophetic tradition of a direct encounter with the divine. All of this, of course, occurred against a backdrop of worsening relations with Hayley and the shock of his trial for sedition. Such experiences, as well as his reduced circumstances when he returned to London, resulted in his new visions which only gradually came to fruition in Milton a Poem and Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion. The most significant development in Blake's new mode of prophetic and visionary work was the centrality of a benevolent Christology into his mythology, which, as Cogan suggests, could be a significant challenge. The Four Zoas, for example, had clearly failed to resolve into a satisfying conclusion with the introduction of a more explicit Christology, and to move forward Blake had to significantly reformulate Los who had been a highly ambivalent figure in the earlier works. In her readings of Milton and Jerusalem, Cogan shows how the visionary experience at Felpham enabled Blake to make a fresh start in his own understanding of prophecy, in particular via a renewed critical engagement with Milton and the redevelopment of Los as the exemplar of prophetic action based on divine mercy: "for Blake, the prophet's purpose is no longer to defeat one worldview with another but to spur in others this same casting off of self-love... Blake displays a newfound understanding of prophecy as something that is practised not for the self but for the other" (pp. 187-188). Blake is commonly described as a writer of prophecies and prophetic works but, as is evident throughout Cogan's insightful and clearly argued book, in many cases critics fail to be clear as to what they actually mean when they invoke this label. What is more, as is evident to any careful reader of Blake's works over the course of his career, his notions of what prophecy meant clearly transformed as the circumstances around him changed. 

Lucy Cogan. Blake and the Failure of Prophecy. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021. Hardback, 236pp. RRP: £89.99.