The Ridiculous Becomes Reality

Texts and Rationales for

‘Table Talks 1: New Approaches to Romanticism and the Natural World’

‘Table Talks’ are interactive workshops linked to ‘The Romantic Ridiculous’ project, designed to share work-in-progress and highlight new approaches to Romantic Studies. My aim is to bring the work of established scholars into conversation with early career researchers, with a focus on close reading. I’m delighted to share the texts chosen for close readings and associated rationales from me, Liz Edwards (from whom I’ve borrowed the title of this blogpost), and 5 ECRS, who have been funded to present their research with bursaries from the AHRC and the Department of English, History, and Creative Writing at Edge Hill.

Join us on Wednesday 16th December from 6 to 8 pm to explore our new approaches to Romanticism and the natural world. You can register here (in between drafting and publishing this post we sold out of tickets – you can still register here, and we’ll put you on a Wait List as I experiment with ticketing possibilities):

Please click on the highlighted text for our selected texts and rationales, which you can read at your leisure before our event: Table Talks 1: Anthology. You’ll find a mix of canonical Romantic poetry, lesser known works by well-known writers, unfamiliar faces, and contemporary responses to the period.

To whet your appetite for the event, here’s a preview of our selections for close reading and accompanying rationales:

I’ve chosen to focus on S T Coleridge’s engagement with Jean Paul Richter in his Notebooks, which I’ve already blogged about, here, here, and here. As the first Table Talk focuses on new approaches to nature, I’ve highlighted Coleridge’s translations and transformations of Jean Paul which think about our relationship with the natural world, including considerations of sublime space, and also turning inward to think about human nature, spirituality, and the problem of atheism. These might not seem immediately ‘ridiculous’ but they give a useful sense of Coleridge’s dialogue with Jean Paul as he turns his translations of the German writer to reflect on personal idiosyncrasies.

Liz Edwards offers us a more direct link to the ridiculous through Nicholas Roe’s declaration that, with the attempted French invasion of the Welsh village of Fishguard in 1797, ‘the ridiculous became reality’. This resonant phrase spoke to my developing understanding of the ridiculous as the experience of failure, finitude, and lowness – a flip-side to the sublime. Liz will reflect on a twenty-first century response to Fishguard’s ridiculous invasion in Damian Walford Davies’ ‘Strumble Head’ (from 2009’s Suit of Lights), which hears ‘a ricochet /of merde!‘ in the would-be invaders’ misadventures.

Catherine Shaw similarly blends the Romantic with the ridiculous in her analysis of Heinrich Heine’s ‘Atta Troll’, in which the plight of an escaped bear becomes political allegory, and an opportunity for Heine to reflect on his German Romantic inheritance.

Here, Atta Troll protests against his position as a figure of ridicule:

“Yea, a bear am I—that same

Boorish animal you know;

That gross, trampling brute am I

Of your sly and crafty smiles!

“Of your wit am I the mark;

I’m the bugbear—him with whom

Every wicked child you frighten

In the silence of the night.

Dana Moss kicks off a mini-roundtable within our Table Talk on John Keats by thinking about the pot of basil in ‘Isabella’ as ‘an active and willing participant in Isabella and Lorenzo’s intimacy—rather than reflecting their desires, the basil is a third party which possesses its own desire for both Lorenzo (in how it feeds off his corpse and embraces his image) and Isabella (whose tears it drinks)’. To me, Dana’s reading transforms the basil into a Little Shop of Horrors style vampire-plant:

LVIII.
And, furthermore, her brethren wonder’d much
  Why she sat drooping by the Basil green,
And why it flourish’d, as by magic touch;
  Greatly they wonder’d what the thing might mean:
They could not surely give belief, that such
  A very nothing would have power to wean
Her from her own fair youth, and pleasures gay,
And even remembrance of her love’s delay.

Bethan Roberts asks us to think about what Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ means today in our age of extinction, reminding us:

If current trends continue, the nightingale could go extinct as a British breeding bird by the year 2025. What does it mean, then, to read Keats’s ‘Ode’, and to consider the most versified bird in history and emblem of the Romantic poet, in this context, with an ear to the bird’s decline? Keats’s poem is, after all, deeply elegiac and steeped in loss as, ‘Fled is that music’, ‘Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades’.

James Lesslie takes us to Scotland with Sarah Murray and her sublime and ridiculous travelogue, A Companion and Useful Guide to the Beauties in the Western Highlands of Scotland, and in the Hebrides, arguing that the mixed mode of ‘Murray’s nature writing tests the boundaries of Romantic-era aesthetics’:

Her inclusion of Ossianic and gothic tropes alongside allusions to Enlightenment luminaries Pennant and Banks troubles the cultural hierarchies advocated by her more discriminating contemporaries, whose marginalisation of these unruly literary forms, as Michael Gamer has observed, shaped the construction of canonical Romanticism during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Murray’s ill-disciplined representations of Highland landscapes transgress gender and genre boundaries, presenting these peripheral locations as spaces where prescriptive models of cultural authority might be challenged.

Finally, Tom Marshall takes us into outer space with Humphry Davy’s dying vision of alien life in Consolations in Travel: Or the Last Days of a Philosopher. Here’s a taster of Davy’s first view of alien life:

I saw moving on the surface below me immense masses, the forms of which I find it impossible to describe; they had systems for locomotion similar to those of the morse or sea-horse, but I saw with great surprise that they moved from place to place by six extremely thin membranes, which they used as wings. Their colours were varied and beautiful, but principally azure and rose-colour; I saw numerous convolutions of tubes, more analogous to the trunk of the elephant than to any thing else I can imagine, occupying what I supposed to be the upper parts of the body, and my feeling of astonishment almost became one of disgust, from the peculiar character of the organs of these singular beings; and it was with a species of terror that I saw one of them mounting upwards…

Hopefully we’ve piqued your curiosity – and even left you with a bit of a cliffhanger regarding Humphry Davy’s close encounter! – and look forward to welcoming you to our first Table Talk in December. Free, online, and open to all! Bring your own mulled beverage of choice!

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