Coleridge, the Ridiculous Child, and the Limits of Romanticism

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    Building on the work of the Romantic-period aesthetician Jean Paul Richter, I define the ridiculous as a comic juxtaposition of perspectives, based on an initial failure of understanding. Richter argues that our sense of the ridiculous originates in early interactions with nature, triggering a kind of counter-sublime which reorients the relationship between individuals, imagination, and landscape, focusing on communal responses to the natural world above individual takes. For Richter, the ridiculous is most clearly seen in social interactions, provoking laughter, community, and collaboration between groups of people. This chapter adopts the ridiculous as a lens through which to read Romantic-period engagements with the natural and social worlds, shifting the emphasis away from encounters between an individual genius and sublime scene to an aesthetic perspective which privileges joyful group dynamics promising moral and spiritual rejuvenation, especially in relation to children and childhood.

    Richter argues that our sense of the ridiculous arises at first in our interactions with the natural world, defining the ridiculous as an aesthetic of smallness, emphasizing spiritual finitude. He argues that women and children laugh the most freely in relation to the ridiculous. I will explore how women’s writing, especially children’s literature, draws on the ridiculous as a small-scale counter-sublime, rethinking relationships between human and natural worlds, especially the animal world, to advocate an ethics of care.

    This chapter focuses on Samuel Taylor Coleridge as a philosopher responding to Richter’s ideas in his own lecture on wit and humour; as a writer of the ridiculous in relation to nature, society, and childhood; and as a figure of the ridiculous in both Romantic-period and later satires, up to his turn as an albatross accompanying Frankenstein’s monster on an Arctic expedition in the first of Chris Riddell’s twenty-first century children’s series Goth Girl. Indeed, I want to particularly examine approaches in contemporary children’s literature which seek to puncture the image of the Romantic Child through ridicule. The Romantic Child is a construction of childhood which celebrates children’s proximity to nature, emphasizing purity, innocence, and creativity, and repeating a series of tropes from traditional views of Romanticism about the significance of the individual in relation to the sublime. The Romantic Child, like Romanticism itself, has been criticized for its restrictive and unhelpful account of selfhood and socialization. I argue that contemporary children’s literature provides the clearest rebuttal of the Romantic Child by mobilizing the ridiculous to argue for the importance of collective action.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationRomanticism and the Cultures of Infancy
    EditorsCian Duffy, Martines Domine Veliki
    PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
    Number of pages133
    ISBN (Print)978-3-030-50428-1
    Publication statusPublished - 29 Aug 2020


    • Romantic period
    • German Culture
    • British Culture


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