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Reviewed by:
  • Awful Parenthesis: Suspension and the Sublime in Romantic and Victorian Poetry by Anne C. McCarthy, and: Imagination and Science in Romanticism by Richard C. Sha
  • Allison Dushane
Awful Parenthesis: Suspension and the Sublime in Romantic and Victorian Poetry. By ANNE C. MCCARTHY. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018. Pp. x, 218. Cloth, $75.00.
Imagination and Science in Romanticism. By RICHARD C. SHA. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018. Pp. xi, 327. Cloth, $59.95.

If one were called upon to name the most crucial—and contested—concepts in the Romantic period, the imagination and the sublime would quickly rise to the top of the list. Both have a history that extends before and beyond the period; however, the concept of the imagination as a distinct faculty of perception whose mysterious operations link human creativity to the ongoing activity of material nature is, arguably, one of the notions that establish Romanticism as a distinct intellectual movement. Likewise, the theorization and figuration [End Page 216] of the sublime as an aesthetic experience that overwhelms human faculties of perception to produce novel subjective states have not only long been a staple of scholarly conversations about the period itself but also attest to the relevance of Romantic-era writing to contemporary arguments about the relationship of literature to other forms of knowledge. Through their fresh approaches to these long-standing concerns, Richard C. Sha's Imagination and Science in British Romanticism and Anne C. McCarthy's Awful Parenthesis join a vibrant interdisciplinary conversation about the significance of literary forms and aesthetic experiences that will surely help determine the future of the field of literary studies.

Sha's work joins a growing body of scholarship—including Dahlia Porter's Science, Form, and the Problem of Induction in British Romanticism (2018), Devin Griffiths's The Age of Analogy: Science and Literature Between the Darwins (2016), and Robert Mitchell's Experimental Life: Vitalism in Romantic Science and Literature (2013)—that explores the connections between Romantic-era literature and science, not simply to contextualize or authorize the former via the latter but, rather, to theorize literary forms and scientific methods as mutually constitutive. His primary aim is to show that "both Romantic artists and scientists seized upon the imagination to connect more fully with the experience of objects, not to leave them behind, and thus 'transcendence' could not automatically separate art from science" (p. 1). In the process, Sha also questions "conventional views" of the Romantic imagination that classifies it as uniformly immaterial through the premature assumption of an opposition between the two cultures of science and literature and "historicist views" that associate that immateriality with "ideological evasiveness" (p. 11). Thus, one of the central concerns of the study is to demonstrate how "the science of the time offered many ways in which to think about the imagination in materialist terms" in order to push back on a critical legacy that links the Romantic imagination to "transcendence" and "ideological evasion" (p. 13). As Sha convincingly argues, the dominance of these approaches has led to a tendency to misread Romanticism as a refusal to engage with the world on its own terms in favor of nostalgia and idealistic projection.

Chapter 1 begins by exploring the ways in which Romantic-era scientists and philosophers, including Humphry Davy, Michael Faraday, and Immanuel Kant, reimagined matter as dynamic force. Sha demonstrates that scientific discourse repeatedly posits the imagination as playing a role in the conceptualization of matter, casting it as a faculty crucial to the scientific process as long as its capacity to hypothesize and unify was accompanied by "more effective forms of discipline" (p. 53). Through a reading of how Percy Bysshe Shelley's poetry and prose, and particularly Prometheus Unbound (1820), participates in this discourse, Sha proposes that "the disciplined imagination understands the forces underlying the surface of matter to be both the ground of our ability to encounter it and an ecological stance in which everything is involved with everything else, and thus agency has reciprocity and consequences in the universe" (p. 95). Subsequent chapters continue to make a case for "imagination's role as an engine of [End Page 217] epistemology" (p. 26). Chapter 2...


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