- Awful Parenthesis: Suspension and the Sublime in Romantic and Victorian Poetry by Anne C. McCarthy
Working in a deconstructive register to develop what she calls “an experiment in a discontinuous historicism” (17), Anne C. McCarthy’s Awful Parenthesis discusses suspension as a preoccupation of nineteenth-century British poetry. The states of suspension considered here, which cover a range of experiences such as swooning after taking too much tobacco, believing oneself to be buried alive, or simply knowing how to thwart a reader’s expectations, become, in McCarthy’s account, a poetic tradition that responds in kind to a world that seems constitutively disjointed, contingent, and incomplete. Drawing its title from Thomas de Quincey’s “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth,” Awful Parenthesis examines suspension both as a theme and formal attribute in nineteenth-century British poetry—considering suspended states both in their “palpable intensity” and for “the phenomenon of the pause itself” (3–4). McCarthy, building on work by Jonathan Culler, Anne-Lise François, Paul de Man, and Nancy Yousef, acclaims the ambivalence that is formally built into lyric poetry, which, she convincingly claims, can develop “suspension as a relation without relation” (12).
Each of the book’s five chapters engages with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his legacy, as McCarthy shows how a Coleridgean poetics of suspension “interrupts linear time...in order to function within a constitutively contingent world” (6). Its temporality insinuates itself, through Kant and the sublime, into the Shelleys’ work in History of a Six Weeks’ Tour, and from there into the oeuvres of Victorian poets who were “considerably multiplying the possibilities that Coleridge had found so abhorrent” in their “stories of suspended animation, apparent death, and premature burial” (6, 118). In McCarthy’s assessment, Coleridge and the canonical poets who inherit his legacy give us “a proto-deconstructive sense of a [End Page 416] world constituted by its own discontinuity with itself” (14). As nineteenth-century British poets discover the fractures and discontinuities of ego that accompany the sublime, they learn to hold the experience in abeyance rather than transcend it, and so develop a poetics of deferral.
In analyses of Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” and “The Nightingale” in chapter 1, and of “Christabel” in chapter 2, McCarthy shows how “Coleridge understood suspension in bodily as well as intellectual, political, and spiritual terms” (24). Coleridge, McCarthy shows, manages to maintain a neutral affect through his experience of the sublime, through his habit of “calling attention to what is placed in abeyance” (59). Reading Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection as the completion or continuation of “Christabel” in a new devotional register, McCarthy gleans from the poet’s divided selfhood a “lesson in deferral” (58). The close readings here are particularly sharp, as we see especially when McCarthy examines the description of Geraldine’s body in “Christabel” and what remains unspoken in Geraldine’s utterances. In both “Christabel” and Aids to Reflection,we find a gap or vacancy as the anchor of subjective and theological meaning: as McCarthy explains, “the experience of discontinuity becomes constitutive of a spiritual self,” which is why “to know the self... requires exploring its construction” (79).
Chapter 3 turns to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Mont Blanc,” and especially its description, over the first three sections of the poem, of the Ravine of Arve. McCarthy shows how, for Shelley, radical suspension becomes a habit of mind in the face of the sublime, teaching us how to live by way of “gaps and discontinuities” (88). While I do not expect that such insights will surprise many readers of this well-known poem, still, McCarthy makes two important innovations in her analysis of “Mont Blanc.” First, by reading “Mont Blanc” as the extension of Coleridge’s subversion of Kantian aesthetics, McCarthy reveals the stakes of Shelley’s remaining suspended within the sublime rather than proceeding through it. Second, McCarthy shows us how to read “Mont Blanc” simply as part of the Shelleys’ History of a Six Weeks’ Tour, rather than as that text...