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thing; but it must be owned to the honour of the ladies, that they can talk whole hours together upon nothing." If a clever poem has been written upon "Nothing," why should not female conversation occasionally turn upon it? for the accompaniments of a fair face, bewitching smiles, and oral music are more delightful than even the embellishments of verse. The lively nonsense of an intelligent and lovely woman, who is known to be capable of better things at the proper season, is a most delicious relief to a man exhausted with the toil of thought.
Lord Bacon recommends a slow and cautious mode of speaking in preference to rapid and unceasing rattle. "In all kinds of speech," says he, "either pleasant, grave, severe, or ordinary, it is convenient to speak leisurely, and rather drawlingly than hastily because hasty speech confounds the memory, and oftentimes, besides the unseemliness, drives a man either to stammering, a nonplus or harping upon that which should follow; whereas a slow speech confirmeth the memory, addeth a conceit of wisdom to the hearers, besides a seemliness of speech and countenance."
We may not only speak with too great rapidity, but at too much length; and this latter fault is far more intolerable than the former, particularly if the subject be unattractive or unseasonable in itself. An error of this nature betrays a lamentable want of tact and good breeding. A man who possesses the slightest knowledge of life, and is really desirous to please his company, is not likely to weary them with the sound. his own voice, or disgust them with unwelcome topics. He does not run on incessantly without directing his attention to the looks and manners of his hearers, who, if he be neither particularly rich nor powerful, will speedily betray their real feelings. When his best jokes are received with solemn gravity, or met with forced smiles that rapidly disappear like the col ms of a winter sun, the fact of his having said rather agreeable requires no additional illustr
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such circumstances is to make a sudden stop with grace and spirit, like the halt of a generous steed, and not betray by any uneasy and ungainly movement, the slightest anger, disappointment or confusion. We should be careful not to interrupt others, and should try to make them regret when we have done. There are men who have so little knowledge or reflection, that they imagine they can interest even strangers and mixed companies with minute details of their bodily ailments. They talk as if every hearer were their physician. It is only the most intimate and the warmest friend to whom such conversation can be interesting. But the broadest rebuffs are no check to these egotistical invalids. Their most particular and pathetic narratives are generally interrupted by some trivial remark about the weather, or some careless inquiry about the daily news. Even those, who prompted by a considerate politeness, are most ready to feign an appearance of interest and attention, usually turn their questions rather on the cause than the nature of the complaints. All men are more or less concerned in the origin of disease, because they know not how soon they may be themselves afflicted, and are naturally anxious to guard themselves as much as possible from the ills of others by tracing their causes and the indications of their first approach. But nothing can possibly be less entertaining or agreeable to the generality of hearers, than elaborate disquisitions upon the actual condition of another person's body; and no one whose faculty of observation is not blinded by the most egregious self-love, could fail to remark the indifference or distaste with which such particulars are usually received. Cowper, whose admirable poem on Conversation shall furnish me with a few further illustrations, has described a valetudinarian bore with his wonted humour.
"Some men employ their health, an ugly trick,
And give us in recitals of disease
A doctor's trouble, but without the fees;
Relate how many weeks they kept their bed,
A worthy and even talented and well-read man may be very disagreeable in conversation, if he has no knowledge of the world, and is unable to accommodate himself to the taste and the mode of the society into which he happens to be thrown. It requires some tact to know when to speak and in what manner, and when to be silent, or to see how far we may introduce our own favourite subjects. It is generally a mark of imbecility or narrowness of mind when a man is unable to dismount from his hobby, or to direct his thoughts into new channels. Some literary men talk as they would write, forgetting that in a private circle they cannot always reckon upon the proper class of hearers, or find them in a congenial mood. We can do what we please with a book. We can take it up when we will, and reject it at other times without offence. It is an unobtrusive companion. But a talker is our master, and has us at a manifest advantage. The rules of society compel us to listen, with a "sad civility." We have but one painful alternative, to be guilty of a species of rudeness which no man can forgive, or to endure the affliction with the best grace we can*. The class of
Lockhart tells us, that Scott was fond of repeating the following verses of the Dean of St. Patrick, and that Scott himself furnished a happy exemplification of the rules which they embody.
Conversation is but carving,-
people I allude to speak much, but converse little. Coleridge was an example. He was a declaimer, a lecturer, a preacher-any thing in fact, but a conversationist. There is little difference in point of character between the monopolists in conversation and those who are utterly taciturn and absent. The first talk with scarcely any reference to their companions, and the others think with the same self-abstraction. The first are active, the others are passive nuisances. In both cases there is a want of respect towards the company. Neither of these offenders would act in the same way in the presence of those whom they greatly fear or regard. Lord Chesterfield has well observed, that it is better to be in the company of a dead man than an absent one, for the former if he gives no pleasure shows no contempt. It is a practical blunder, he adds, to talk to an absent man-you might as well address yourself to a deaf one.
Egotists in conversation are often exceedingly offensive, not so much because we dislike to hear a man speak occasionally of himself, for some men have the power to talk of their own feelings and adventures in a very engaging manner, but because most of them are too apt to engross the whole attention of the company, and to be intolerant of the egotism of others in proportion to the intensity of their own. They who are really more desirous to make themselves agreeable in company than to shine and dazzle, should remember that in proportion to their own obvious exaltation is the depression of their hearers, who are not often generous enough to be delighted with those who force upon them a sense of their own inferiority. They should endeavour to discover whether those whom they converse with are most in want of a listener or a speaker, and it is a good general rule rather to take than to give the tone of the conversation.
Carve to all but just enough,
Let them neither starve nor stuff;
And that you may have your due
It is above all things necessary to avoid unseasonable topics and allusions. It is injudicious to launch out into flaming descriptions of the happiness, wealth and luxury of our acquaintances in the presence of those who are poor and melancholy, and who consider themselves especially ill-treated by fortune and the world. The comparison which such topics naturally suggest is painful in the extreme, and sometimes occasions a lasting irritation. Neither should we quote Scripture in the company of rakes and drunkards, or swear in the presence of the clergy. As to the use of oaths, which was once esteemed an indication of manliness, it is no longer tolerated in respectable society. It is a practice more honored in the breach than the observance. Fortunately it requires no great exertion of heroism or philosophy to break ourselves of so idle and mean a habit. Archbishop Tillotson has pleasantly observed, that no man can plead in justification of it that he was born of a swearing constitution.
A disposition to contradict and domineer is one of the worst faults of which a talker can be guilty, because the great art of conversation is to make every one in company feel so much at his ease as to be able to express himself with coolness and perspicuity. But an overbearing speaker excites either fear or indignation in all who hear him. At the same time it is necessary to guard against the opposite error of too much civility. Excess in this respect is a characteristic of bad breeding. A clown makes more bows than a courtier.
"Discourse may want an animated-No,
To brush the surface and to make it flow."
A perfect unison of judgment is unfavorable to conversation. We do not like to talk to mere echoes. "Pray contradict me,' said a gentleman, annoyed by the constant and unequivocal assent of his hearer, "if it be only to prove that we are really two persons." To differ in an agreeable manner is the perfection of