Five Questions: Lucy Cogan on Blake and the Failure of Prophecy

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Lucy Cogan is Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century and Romantic Literature at University College Dublin, Ireland. Her research focuses on the intersections of gender, politics and religion in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writing. She has published articles on Sarah Butler and Charlotte Brooke and edited Charlotte Dacre’s Confessions of the Nun of St Omer for the Chawton House Library Series. Her particular passion is William Blake, on whom she has published several articles and book chapters and who is the subject of her first monograph, Blake and the Failure of Prophecy, which has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan and which we discuss below.

1) How did you first become interested in William Blake?

Back when I was doing an MA in Modernity and Culture and thinking naïvely that I might do a PhD on imagist poetry or something, I took a module run by the eminent Coleridge scholar Jim Mays on intertextuality which featured Milton’s Paradise Lost, Blake’s Milton and Allen Ginsburg’s Howl. Mays had chosen the Tate facsimile edition of Blake’s Milton as the set text but you couldn’t get it anywhere and I became mildly obsessed with hunting it down. After traipsing all over London I finally tracked down a battered copy in the Tate gift shop and then opened it to find the strangest work of literature I’d ever come across. It was the sense that this mad vision was always on the point of making transcendent, mind-blowing sense that hooked me and it’s that same quality that still has me coming back to Blake today.

2) How did Blake’s understanding of the role of the prophet differ from the way we’d commonly conceptualise that figure today?

I think that as literary scholars it’s hard to escape the habit of treating prophecy primarily as a rhetorical stance or mode out of a kind of squeamishness with its claims to have access to a “divine vision” or whatever you want to call it. But to track the shifting significance of prophecy in Blake’s oeuvre means accepting that for him prophecy was a kind of action you do in the world. Yet if we accept that his prophetic poetry is performative and its purpose was to change the world then by his own standard his life’s work was an utter failure. In the book I wanted to try to capture how this trauma plays out across his career, as he tries to recover that unity of action and purpose he had felt in the immediate aftermath of the outbreak of the French Revolution.

3) In your Introduction, you argue that Blake’s ‘awareness of divergent temporalisations of prophetic action allowed him to adjust his use of the prophetic form as his understanding of his authorial mission evolved over time’.  Where in his milieu would you locate the starkest of these adjustments?

I’m not sure if this is the ‘starkest’ but maybe the most consequential of the shifts I discuss is from the Old Testament model of prophetic temporality to an apocalyptic model. In the popular consciousness they tend to be treated as interchangeable but there is an important distinction in how these models understand the relationship between prophecy and time that had major consequences for Blake and his sense of himself as a prophet.

For the Old Testament prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel, who influenced Blake’s earliest articulations of the power of prophecy, the outcome of the prophet’s judgment was a matter of negotiation between God, his prophet, and his people. In other words, the future could be changed if the people listened to the prophet and altered their course. For apocalyptic prophets, on the other hand, the future is set. The end of the present world is coming and you can’t do anything about it. All you can do is wait for the fireball of righteous judgment to consume you like that guy in the car in Independence Day. So when Blake moved towards an apocalyptic model with works like “A Song of Liberty” and America he was expressing more than his confidence, he was signalling his certainty, that the end for all the corrupt regimes of Europe was imminent come what may. But then it didn’t happen. In the book I consider the ways he attempted to reinvent his prophetic system over and over again across the rest of his career, moving between these models, as he tried to think through how and why he had been so wrong.

4) Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics are one of the book’s inspirations: what for you were the most exciting elements of Blake made visible by the book’s development of Ricoeur’s insights?

Ever since I was a Philosophy undergrad I’ve had a thing for Ricoeur because his theory of hermeneutics has always struck me as a profoundly humane way of thinking about our predicament, flailing around trying and failing to understand each other and our world. Ricoeur is often lumped in with Derrida as just another post-structuralist for whom the notion of truth is subject to deep suspicion. But for Ricoeur it’s not that there is no truth, just that it is multifaceted, perhaps endlessly so, since we are constantly changing and our perspective on the truth changes with us.

One of Ricoeur’s explanations of the hermeneutic method, in particular, helped me to conceptualise both my own analytical process and also Blake’s poetic practice. Ricoeur describes our attempts to grasp the truth when we perform hermeneutics as moving in a spiral pattern with each attempt approaching the truth at a different level or angle. Failure is therefore built into this process since each revolution reveals only part of the truth and the whole truth remains stubbornly elusive. For me, this is how Blake came to understand his own prophetic method, which is (if you are familiar with his later work especially) often maddeningly repetitive. I argue that these repetitions in his poetry reveal it to be a reiterative hermeneutic practice through which he attempts to work through his previous failed attempts to discern that visionary truth he was chasing throughout his career.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

Something completely different! I’m currently putting together a Medical Humanities podcast with a UCD colleague (Alice Maugher, School of History) called The Demon Drink, which looks at Ireland’s fraught relationship with alcohol from the 1600s through to 1922 (the founding of the Irish state). The podcast should be coming out in late-July/August. This developed out of my work on my second monograph which is focused on drunkenness in eighteenth and nineteenth century Irish literature.