Prophetic books

William Blake's prophetic books

The prophetic books of the English poet and artist William Blake are a series of difficult and obscure poetic works. While Blake worked as a commercial illustrator, these books were ones that he produced, with his own engravings, as an extended and largely private project. The French Revolution from 1791 is not illustrated, and is usually excluded from the list of prophetic books. In them he elaborated, with some false starts, a personal invented mythology (mythopoeia). The mythopoeia is largely Biblical in inspiration; apart from that, it has been extensively debated for both its political and religious content. David V. Erdman considers that the separation from the corpus of The French Revolution removes a key to the symbolism used by Blake.

The prophetic books have at times in the past been dismissed as lacking in good sense. This position is now rarely to be met with in scholars of English literature, Blake having been one of the major beneficiaries of critical fashion during the twentieth century. Northrop Frye, and following him Harold Bloom, have suggested that the difficulty of reading Blake's prophetic works can be overcome, and that the dismissive 'mystical' applied to them is largely an obfuscation. 'Mystical' as to the poetic language has been indeed the equivalent of 'visionary' applied to the engravings.

Since the prophetic books were not highly regarded, where Blake's very direct lyric poems were considered unproblematic, they had a tortuous publication history.

The Continental prophecies

The cycle of Continental prophecies comprises America a Prophecy (1793), Europe a Prophecy (1794), and The Song of Los (1795), which is made up of sections Africa and Asia.

America a Prophecy is divided into a Preludium (which is part of the Orc myth) and A Prophecy, which has obvious political content devolving from the American Revolution. The first line of A Prophecy is repeated as the final line of Africa. On the other hand, Europe a Prophecy has an unnamed introductory section, a Preludium with Orc and Enitharmon, and A Prophecy with connections to the contemporary situation of wartime Europe. The Asia section of The Song of Los links onto the end of Europe a Prophecy (via the word 'howl').

The books

See also


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