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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Prophecy and Literature


Poetry is commonly linked to prophecy, in a wide variety of cultures and in diverse times and places. In the West, this connection is omnipresent, with key moments including Ancient Greece, the Renaissance, Romanticism, and twentieth-century mantic movements in poetry. What, then, in different cultures, have been the implications of the link between prophecy and literature? What have poets and writers done with it? What are the connections between literary prophecy and other varieties? This essay explores these questions, responding to the invitation posed by ‘Insights' to capture work in progress. I begin by mapping prophecy, poetry and literature over some broad terrain. Secondly, I discuss why I believe the period of the European Renaissance and Reformation to be particularly promising for a study of poetic prophecy, grounding this in a number of observations which belong to histories of literature, on the one hand, and of religion and society, on the other. Finally, I allude briefly to research in progress which takes two sixteenth-century ‘bestsellers' as case studies, namely the Christian poetry of Guillaume de Saluste Du Bartas [1544-1590] and the comic fictions of François Rabelais [1483?-1553]. Both texts have important things to tell us about the implications of conceptualising poetry as prophecy in the Reformation. In particular, poetic prophecy appears to be concerned with creative presentations of time, history, Creation and Apocalypse, and, secondly, with the pursuit of truth through fiction, comedy and ambiguity. Literature from this period can tell us something about what the Reformation did with the notion of poetic prophecy, and how poetic prophecy related to the explosion in other modes of prophecy, and to the Reformation's reflection on religious belief, history, confessional division and violence. Finally, a study of literary ‘prophecy' in Renaissance texts may also contribute towards a prehistory of the concept of literature.

Insights Paper