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Vol. 56 no. 3: Winter 2022–23

Lucy Cogan, Blake and the Failure of Prophecy

4 January 2023
26 Jan. 2023


The central claim of Lucy Cogan’s Blake and the Failure of Prophecy is that the defeat of Blake’s eschatological hopes in the mid-1790s compelled him to reinvent his prophetic myth throughout his career. This claim hinges on the assumption that Blake believed himself to be a prophet whose communication of inspired truths could help instigate social change. In Cogan’s view, Blake sees his role or “duty” through the lens of the pre-exilic Hebrew prophets, whose pronouncements were “a kind of action designed to bring about the future” (v-vi), a future that was “to some extent negotiable between God, [the] prophet and [the] people” (18). Cogan uses this lens to interpret the development of Blake’s work in the 1790s. She argues that he moves from a politically nuanced approach in The French Revolution, one in accord with the pre-exilic prophetic model, to a more deterministic mode in “A Song of Liberty” and America a Prophecy, a mode she describes as “apocalyptic.” But when the revolution is engulfed in violence and the predetermined climax of history fails to arrive (a failure depicted in Europe a Prophecy), he shifts to a cosmological explanation in the so-called Urizen books—​The First Book of UrizenThe Book of Ahania, and The Book of Los. These works feature Los as a fallen prophet whose complicity with Urizen in creating a flawed universe dooms prophecy to failure from the start. Blake seeks to resolve this impasse in Vala/​The Four Zoas, but his imposition of a Christian providential scheme brings a “transcendent” solution incompatible with the original zoa-emanation narrative. He must then reinvent himself a final time, aligning the transcendent and immanent dimensions of prophecy through Los’s merger with Blake himself, as depicted in the 22 November 1802 letter to Thomas Butts and later incorporated into Milton and Jerusalem.