Reflection by Annmarie Drury
Pivotal for Anne McCarthy’s central claims in Awful Parenthesis is the thought of Thomas De Quincey, who used the terms “awful parenthesis” and “suspension” in his 1823 essay on Macbeth to characterize the interval of “knocking at the gate” after Duncan’s murder. “[I]t is not the absence of activity that one feels, but the overwhelming sense of interruption and possibility – a form of hovering” (4), McCarthy writes in examining De Quincey. She thus discovers her key critical term – in word and in initial concept – within Romantic writing. Yet across her study, she deftly re-makes “suspension” into a contemporary interpretive tool. In developing the term’s meaning, McCarthy solves several problems. For example, she argues that we need “alternatives to the dialectic of inwardness and public responsibility that has long provided the dominant narrative of a ‘Victorian’ sublime” (17) and suggests that reading for suspension opens such avenues.
Many of my favorite moments come when McCarthy overturns assumptions that persistently structure thought on particular poems. Exploring Tennyson’s Maude, she argues that Victorian discourse on bodies dead or possibly dead has a role in the poem – within its very poetics, and not simply through provision of a plot element – a role, furthermore, that does not somehow cancel Tennyson’s interest in the psyche of his speaker. “[H]owever much the ‘burial’ experienced by the Maud speaker reflects the disturbed reality of a deranged mind,” McCarthy writes, “the fact that this derangement takes the specific form of a live burial is significant, in that it mobilizes the concerns of a mid-nineteenth-century cultural and scientific discourse about suspension …” (119). McCarthy’s interpretation is instructive in its elegant illumination of how an external Victorian preoccupation contributes to the feeling and idea interior to Tennyson’s poem.
Probably the greatest pleasure for me is revisiting Christina Rossetti in the company of McCarthy and witnessing how interpretation of her poems, especially The Prince’s Progress, in light of suspension restores full agency (and idiosyncrasy) to this poet. As McCarthy shows, notions of Rossetti as a poet whose energies derive fundamentally from forms of negativity – from refusal and from insistence on rules – remain remarkably persistent. Even scholars alert to such tendencies seem to end up recreating them. McCarthy’s insights differ. In her reading, Rossetti’s Prince becomes not a lesson in what we must avoid, but “a critique of the very notion of progress and of attempts to establish a single rule according to which the poem must be read” (152); the Prince shows we cannot depend on rules. McCarthy reveals Rossetti to be a radical poetic philosopher. While “[t]he underlying anxiety” in Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” concerns “the presence of a contingency that could not be subsumed by some higher power,” Rossetti extols chance: “For Rossetti, that higher power becomes identified with contingency itself” (174).
In my enthusiasm, I am thinking about two questions. What happens to suspension in twentieth-century poetry, and where might we find it among poets today? I wondered if certain poems by Sylvia Plath, for example, might be placed in the line that McCarthy traces. My second question concerns the prominence of the term “rhetoric” and its permutations in Awful Parenthesis. In particular, I am still thinking about the idea of the rhetorical question with which McCarthy works, because in reading I became aware how accustomed I am to calling a question such as Shelley’s in the closing lines of “Mont Blanc” a “poetic question,” using a term supplied by John Hollander in Melodious Guile (1990) – where it is explicitly distinguished from a “rhetorical question.” The idea of the rhetorical has a more capacious meaning for McCarthy than it does in Hollander’s formulation, I think – one that her discussion of Paul de Man’s “rhetorical question” (121) partly illuminates – and I am still pondering the meanings of this difference.