Billeder på siden
PDF
ePub

wearisome to old ones. A thrice told tale is an abomination not easily endured. An anecdote or story that is new, brief, and pertinent is of course always agreeable.

“But sedentary weavers of long tales,

Give me the fidgets, and my patience fails.
'Tis the most asinine employ on earth
To hear them tell of parentage and birth,
And echo conversations dull and dry
Embellished withế he said,' and . so said I !
At every interview their route the same
The repetition makes attention lame;
We bustle up with unsuccessful speed,
And in the saddest part cry-- Droll indeed !'”

Johnson observes that Swift told stories with great facility, and delighted in doing what he knew himself to do well; but being captivated by the respectful silence of a steady listener, he told the same tales too often,

Excessive laughter (especially in the wrong place, which it often must be, for it is rarely indeed that there is occasion for its constant repetition) is the mark of great weakness and shallowness of mind. It is very painful to be obliged to return it with a grave look, or to feign a sympathy. But of all nuisances, the practical jokers are the most disgusting. Unhappily it requires so little capital to set up in this line, that there is scarcely a merry company in which one of these humble humourists is not to be met with. Any body can steal your handkerchief, or draw your seat from under you when you have occasion to rise. But such easy tricks are surely beneath the ambition of a gentleman. His groom would at least equal him in similar buffoonery. Such conduct inevitably leads to too much familiarity, and an old proverb may inform us of its ultimate effect. Amongst the greatest sins in conversation is that of scandal. I have been grieved to see how much this vile propensity is encouraged amongst our fair countrywomen in India. This is a sore point, and I content myself with

a bare allusion to it. Its odious nature requires no illustration. The fair sex have generally too much good sense and good feeling not to admit, that to be hated it needs but to be brought to their serious notice, though in their thoughtless and unguarded moments too many of them are apt to indulge in it themselves, and to countenance it in others. But if the ladies sometimes fall into this ungenerous and unworthy practice, the men in this country are but too apt to fall into another still more disgraceful. I have been in the company of men of first-rate talents and acquirements, who seemed to act on the principle of Sir Robert Walpole, who always introduced obscenity into conversation, because he thought it was the only subject which all men could understand, and in which they could be deeply interested without falling into bickerings and disputes. This sentiment is an insult to human nature, and is as false as it is offensive. If I notice these two occasional defects in Indian society, it is not because I have not seen much more in it to commend than to censure. In Calcutta especially, I have heard as refined and intellectual conversation as the most fastidious could desire.

It is generally observed that conversation is not excellent or varied in proportion to the largeness of the company, but that on the contrary it is limited and restrained from more or less of a sense of embarrassment in some speakers, and an eagerness to talk and a desire to shine in others, and the necessity of introducing only those general discussions in which all can join. Any thing approaching to the sentimental, the impassioned or the confidential is quite unseasonable in a large company. Perhaps the most delightful conversation is between two or three individuals of similar pursuits and interests, who agreeing in all broad views differ only on particular points, and who are sufficiently intimate (without being too familiar) to be able to pour forth their genuine feelings and give expression to their inmost thoughts. Conversation is always flat, frivolous and uneasy at

morning visits. The most congenial period for colloquial discourse is after a late dinner, by a cheerful fireside, or at least by candle-light. Such a scene as the following prepares us for a free and cordial interchange of thoughts.

“ Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,

Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each ;
So let us welcome peaceful evening in."

At such a time the ingenuous heart reveals its eloquent secrets ; and the feelings, that in the broad daylight and amid the shock and the hum of strife and business were painfully repressed, gush forth with a charming air of confidence and sincerity. It is in such an hour that men seem most capable of friendship. A spell is upon them, and they forget for a while their worldly coldness and reserve. They no longer act upon a selfish and heartfreezing system, which teaches us to treat our best friends as if they might hereafter become our bitterest enemies.

It is said that neither Pope nor Dryden were good talkers. The latter has told us of himself that he was saturnine and reserved, and not one of those who endeavour to entertain company by lively sallies of merriment and wit;” and Pope was too conscious of his fame, and too fearful of committing himself. Still the conversation of these eminent men, when they felt themselves perfectly at their ease, and their associates were not unworthy of them, cannot have been otherwise than delightful and instructive. But it is not every day that a literary man can meet with those who are capable of talking with him, or who are fit to listen. “Nothing," says Petrarch, “is so tiresome as to converse with a person who has not the same information as one's self.” His biographers tell us that Petrarch was not always sociable, but that the moment he felt disposed to give himself to society, he conversed with the utmost freedom. “ If I seem to my friends,” says the poet, 'to be a great talker, it is because I see them seldom, and then I talk as much in a day as will compensate for the silence of a year.” Mr. Taylor (the author of the humourous poem of Monsieur Tonson) says, that Mr. Murphy, the translator of Tacitus, used to frequent a bookseller's shop, the resort of several literary men, for the purpose of listening to Akenside's conversation, while he himself pretended to be reading a book. He said that nothing could be more delightful. Mr. Murphy and the poet never, however, became personally acquainted with each other.

Milton with " a fit audience, though few,” was no doubt most instructive and enchanting in conversation. It makes us even exult in our common human nature, when we think " of that celestial colloquy sublime” which he must have held with worthy spirits. Who does not kindle at the thought of the honor and delight which Mr. Lawrence must have felt in being the friend and associate of such a man as Milton? How the following sonnet must have stirred his heart !

TO MR. LAWRENCE.

LAWRENCE, of virtuous father, virtuous son,
Now that the fields are dank and ways are mire,
Where shall we sometimes meet, and by the fire
Help waste a sullen day, what may be won
From the hard season gaining ? Time will run
Ou smoother, till Favonius re-inspire
The frozen earth, and clothe in fresh attire
The lily and rose, that neither sowed nor spun.
What neat repast shall feast us, light and choice
Of attic taste, with wine, whence we may rise
To hear the lute well touched, or artful voice
Warble immortal notes and Tuscan air ?
He who of those delights can judge, and spare
To interpose them oft, is not unwise.

Some of our modern essayists have entered into the question of whether authors or men of the world are the most agreeable and

converser.

instructive in conversation. Rousseau has remarked in his Emilius, that the conversation of authors is better than their books; and if this be really the case, it must certainly be better than the conversation of the majority of other men, whose tabletalk would appear but tame and frivolous in print. The knowledge of literary men is superior in quality to the knowledge of other people, inasmuch as it is not technical and professional, but of universal application. They do not address themselves to lawyers, soldiers or physicians, but to human beings, with a general reference to their common nature. Dr. Johnson's conversation, as recorded by Boswell, has been considered superior to his writings. It was more subtle, animated and pointed than his laboured and formal compositions. Yet, though whatever he said was always worthy of preservation, he was not an agreeable

He carried the monarchical principle into conversation, and made himself its representative. He allowed no equality. His hearers were his subjects, and he ruled them with a rod of iron. The utmost they could venture upon was a timid question. Goldsmith wittily and truly applied a passage in one of Cibber's plays to Dr. Johnson. “ There is no arguing with Johnson,” said he ; " for when his pistol misses fire, he knocks his adversary down with the butt end of it.” Burke seems to have been the only man who was any thing like a match for him; and so jealous was Johnson of his own supremacy, and so highly did he respect the conversational abilities of his eloquent friend, that on one occasion, when debilitated by sickness, he said of him, that fellow calls forth all my powers.

Were I to sec Burke now it would kill me." Burke was indeed a formidable antagonist, who neither dealt in dogmatisms himself, nor encouraged them in others. There was great shrewdness in the question put by Goldsmith to Boswell, who was too extravagantly praising the conversation of Johnson.

• Can he wind into a subject like a serpent, as Burke does ?" said the

« ForrigeFortsæt »