There is something strangely other than straightforward about prophecy, something downright unpredictable. While a prophetic utterance may promise or warn its audience, usually in obscure language, of the advent of some future occurrence, prophecy is also, as Ian Balfour shows in this remarkable book, “always about something other than what it seems” (71). The commonplace understanding of prophecy reduces it to prediction. But there is also a performative dimension to prophecy. A prophecy is a promise, an event in its own right in which questions of truth and knowledge are suspended and trumped by those of power. Prophecy’s claims to future knowledge, moreover, divert attention from the manner in which it (often urgently) intervenes in the very history it would seem merely to foretell. Max Weber, for example, pointed out that prophecy has tended to flourish in times of political ferment (in the case of the era covered in Balfour’s book, the French Revolution) where it has functioned as a form of political rhetoric concerned not, as its content would suggest, with predicting the future, but rather, with influencing it. Another wrinkle in prophecy’s complex temporality arises from the fact that this apparently most future-oriented of discursive modes is also profoundly a thing of the past, with a rich tradition on which poets such as Blake or Hölderlin or Coleridge will look back upon and cite in constructing their own prophetic utterances. Prophecy is temporally mobile: although it occurs in a particular historical moment, a prophecy – particularly a written prophecy – can be repeated and cited over and again in multiple contexts, each of which will inflect its constative references, often in ways difficult to predict. It is this openness of prophecy to the future, its fundamental “lack of fulfillment” (2), which makes prophecy such a compelling mode for study and The Rhetoric of Romantic Prophecy such a fascinating work.
Balfour examines the incarnation of the prophetic mode in the Romantic era in England and Germany. He attributes the renewed interest in prophecy to developments in Biblical scholarship and criticism in the mid-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries which radically changed how the scriptures were read. Balfour shows how Robert Lowth, Richard Hurd, William Warburton, Johann Herder, and Johann Eichhorn challenged the identification of prophecy with divinely inspired knowledge of the future and thus made possible a new conception of prophecy as a poetic and political act. From this work, a “new” Biblical text emerged and with it, a new prophetic paradigm which promised poets the possibility that, while they may not be able to know the future in its specific detail, they could, in Balfour’s words, “help produce the very future they might otherwise seem merely to know in advance” (39). Poets were, in effect, endowed with the power to legislate rather than simply adumbrate the future.
Balfour traces the vigorous and diverse engagement with prophecy which erupted in the Romantic era through extended reading of texts by Blake, Hölderlin, and Coleridge. In the chapter on Blake, the poet emerges not as an isolated seer enveloped in the immediacy of his idiosyncratic visions, but as a poet-prophet self-consciously working with (and reworking) the Hebraic, Christian, and English prophetic traditions. What we get in a poem like Milton, then, is not a direct revelation but a prophetic vision mediated by those traditions and enacted in their citation, their memory. In Milton, moreover, the historical “moment” appears as a breach in a coherent narrative of history, a disruption which has its counterpart in the discontinuous narratives of such prophetic books as Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah. A similar break occurs in Hölderlin, where the prophetic word ruptures “any simple linear progression or sequence” (246), foregrounding, as it does so, “language as sheer language” (246), that is, the materiality of language itself which Benjamin sometimes refers to as “pure” language and which de Man traces in his later essays. Finally, Balfour juxtaposes the political agenda of Coleridge’s The Statesman’s Manual with that text’s famous theory of allegory and symbol: both, he shows, are enabled through a totalizing rhetoric which derives its authority from the divine word and its expression in prophecy. Of particular interest here is Balfour’s stunning demonstration that Coleridge is only able to render the superiority of the symbol to allegory in an allegorical mode.
Balfour rigorously avoids the tendency he sees in the Coleridgean text of effacing the particular in favour of the universal. Indeed, one of the most challenging but invigorating aspects of The Rhetoric of Romantic Prophecy is the relentlessness with which it resists resolving its readings into reductive generalizations – about prophecy, but also about any of the categories with which prophecy is cognate (and it runs the theoretical gamut from history to temporality to figurality, language, representation, and so on). Balfour, moreover, handles the most difficult of theoretical questions with an elegant lightness of touch. There is also, however, a provocative suggestiveness in his writing. For example, in his introduction, Balfour writes: “In the end, all writing that matters may be prophetic” (18). In this passage association of the possibility of knowledge with an endtime, Balfour suggests the open-endedness of the textual problematic here named prophecy. In the end of a certain model of history, it may indeed be clear that all writing that “matters” may be prophetic. But then again, it may not. Only time will tell. Although Balfour’s text necessarily lacks the resonant ambiguity of a prophetic poet such as Hölderlin, its direct statements are often shadowed, as in this example, by a richly evocative prose which, in its openness, approximates the style of prophecy itself, and which, as such, assures The Rhetoric of Romantic Prophecy the most promising of futures.