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Vol. 52 no. 3: Winter 2018–19

Christopher M. Bundock, Romantic Prophecy and the Resistance to Historicism

  • John Patrick James
11 January 2019
11 Jan. 2019


What is history and what does it mean to be historical? These are not only fitting questions for an era of political upheaval and epistemic change, but ones endemic to the polyvalent inquiry and future-oriented temporality exhibited by many of Romanticism’s most influential figures. What Blake, Goethe, Coleridge, and others all share—besides a penchant for observation and an inclination toward linguistic play—is an ability to combine what today seem distinct modes of inquiry into literary forms no less valid for their imaginative structure than the abstruse prose tracts of Kierkegaard or the aesthetic writings of Kant or Burke. Such multidisciplinary works propagate a novel sense of historicity, one that distinguishes itself from the accumulated chain of events that forms the present, and, beyond it, the future such poems surreptitiously portend.

Many influential studies have deftly adopted this theme, among them James Chandler’s England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism (1998), Kevis Goodman’s Georgic Modernity and British Romanticism: Poetry and the Mediation of History (2004), and Saree Makdisi’s William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s (2003). Christopher M. Bundock’s Romantic Prophecy and the Resistance to Historicism complicates this discussion by underscoring an apocalyptic dimension to Romantic temporality central less to its ability to foresee the future, or to see itself as somehow outside time, and more to prophecy’s capacity to operate “outside and parallel to the systematic, variously scientific elaborations of historiography” (5) and to position the prophet as “an anti- or at least a para-institutional agent” (3). Such readings are especially pertinent to Blake, whose work exhibits a staunch resistance to the hermeneutic authority of juridical, religious, and educational institutions. The study is also useful for understanding the prophetic dimensions of the various texts Bundock takes up, from Wordsworth’s The Prelude to Kant’s lesser-known writings on Swedenborg to Mary Shelley’s post-apocalyptic novel The Last Man. Throughout these discussions, Bundock exhibits remarkable erudition, contextualizing the book’s concerns within the sometimes obscure scientific and religious discourses of the period while theorizing that argument for an inherently evolving and contentiously understood present.