Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Prophecy and Imagination in the Romantic City

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Prophecy and Imagination in the Romantic City

Article excerpt

  there never was any age or any country so favourable to the success
  of imposture and the growth of superstition, as this
  very age and this very England Robert Southey, Letters from
  England (1807), 443.

One of the most extraordinary features of the lace 18th and early 19th centuries--those years of commercialisation and urbanisation, utilitarianism and political economy--was the prevalence of prophecy: Londoners of all classes--respectable Anglican clergymen, members of Parliament, veteran scientists, servant girls from the West Country, half pay navy officers, artisan engravers--proclaimed their conviction that God was about to end the world and remake it, bringing about a millennium of love and peace in which the redeemed would live with Christ on earth. The Swedenborgians attracted hundreds to their New Jerusalem Church; Richard Brothers was followed by thousands when he envisioned London's destruction and remaking in apocalyptic fire; Joanna Southcott's supporters numbered in the hundreds of thousands, believing she was pregnant with the returning Messiah. But while historians of religion have attributed prophets' popularity to the failings of the established church (see Hole, Oliver, Harrison), and historians of radicalism have related it to the French Revolution (see Thompson. McCalman. Mee, Worrall) there was also another cause--London itself, the new and bewildering kinds of social experience it produced, rendered some of the inhabitants desperate to imagine themselves into a better, more human way of life. (1)

In this essay I want to ask what some of these prophecies had in common and what they had to do with the experience of London, the world's largest and most commercial city. I shall ask a further question too: what happened to them? The eruption of prophecy, I shall suggest, was in fact the end of something, the last great flowering of the practice of interpreting current events through the framework of Old Testament scripture. Ultimately, for most Britons such prophecy failed to encompass the new urban conditions within a convincing structure of meaning, failed, that is, adequately to understand the city. It was De Quincey, I will show, who diagnosed this failure, making himself an embodiment of the city's perversion of the capacity for redemptive vision. In the process he foresaw a decisive shift, an inaugural moment of modernity--the secularization of prophecy in the poetic imagination and the flight of that poetic imagination to the countryside. (2) De Quincey, in other words, anticipated, and suggested the cause of, a division between country and city and poetry and prose that would dominate the next two hundred years of British culture.

The overwhelming nature of the new urban conditions is attested by the German visitor G. C. Lichtenberg, describing his First experience of London in the 1770s:

  Imagine a street about as wide as the Weender in Gottingen, bin,
  taking it altogether, about six times as long. On both sides tall
  houses with plate-glass windows. The lower floors consist of
  shops and seem to be made entirely of glass; many thousand candles
  light up silverware, engravings, books, clocks, pewter, paintings,
  women's Finery, modish and otherwise, gold, precious stones,
  steel-work, and endless coffee-rooms and lottery offices. The street
  looked as though it were illuminated for some festivity ... a porter
  runs you down, crying 'By your leave,' when you are lying on the
  ground. In the middle of the street roll chaises, carriages and drays
  in an unending stream. Above this din and the hum and clatter
  of thousands of tongues and feet one hears the chimes from
  church clocks, the bells of the postmen, the organs, fiddles,
  hurdy-gurdies, and tambourines of English mountebanks, and tile cries
  of those who sell hot and cold viands in the open street corners.
  Then you will see a bonfire of shavings flaring up as high as the
  upper floors of the houses in a circle of merrily shouting
  beggar-boys, sailors and rogues. … 
Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.