Ian Balfour. The Rhetoric of Romantic Prophecy. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002. ISBN: 0-8047-4506-4. Price: US$27.95.[Notice]

  • Robert Alexander

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  • Robert Alexander
    Brock University

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 …