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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,
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
good breeding. Cowper has happily described a blustering and positive talker, and the mode in which he should be treated.
“ Vociferated logic kills me quite,
A noisy man is always in the right:
The wit who follows up his anecdote or pun with noisy laughter, and is ever on the watch for double meanings, seizing your smallest phrases as certain animals snap at flies, in fact a mere "word-catcher that lives on syllables,” is a heavy check upon
all sensible conversation. It is impossible to continue a discussion with any gravity, confidence or feeling, while some one is laying in wait for an expression which he may convert into an equivoque or an epigram. Professed wits always make us serious, though they may prevent us from pursuing the discussion of a serious subject. The best of them must fail so much oftener than they succeed, that, if they are not particularly discreet, they soon weary and annoy their hearers. Even when they do succeed, their listeners have generally either anticipated something still better, or have been so long on the look out, that they are too much exhausted for any real enjoyment. The mood which is necessary to a full relish of a witticism is rarely of long continuance. A succession of surprises decreases in force at every fresh shock, and the wit that is anticipated loses half its power. The wit that is most effective is that which is least looked for, or that seems naturally suggested and is pertinently applied. It is then a great enlivener of conversation. Even the butt of conversation soon wearies us, unless, like Falstaff, he is witty in himself as well as the cause of wit in others. If he can give as well as take, he affords a delightful treat to those who are merrily inclined. A man of real humour will not make a butt of a mere fool who can give him no play. A skilful angler only exults in his sport when he has a strong and troublesome fish upon his hook, that puts him on his mettle, and requires all the power of his art. Goldsmith has somewhere very justly observed, that though the company of fools may amuse us for awhile, it never fails to leave us melancholy in the end. Professed wits are generally too ambitious of display to think for a moment of the comfort or disposition of their hearers. I am very far from insisting on an objection to wit and humour, if preserved within reasonable bounds.
When introduced in season, and tempered by good taste and good feeling, they constitute
ng embellishments to conversation. Joanna Baillie has given us a good description of a fascinating companion in her tragedy of De Montford.
“ He is so full of pleasant anecdote,
So rich, so gay, so poignant is his wit,
The following sketch from the hand of Shakspeare, was once applied to Garrick by his friend Mr. Langton. If the application was a just and happy one, as we have every reason to believe, that celebrated actor must have been as delightful in the parlour as on the stage.
“ A merrier man,
It is not an easy matter to argue on subjects of deep interest in a calm and methodical manner. An argument is too generally a dispute, and combatants becoming violent and confused supply the place of reason with an excess of anger. At such a moment the best friends are often changed into bitter enemies, for a contemptuous sneer or a severe expression cuts deeper than the sharpest weapon.
Flattery, even when gross, is generally acceptable, because though its sincerity may be doubted, it is certain that the flatterer thinks us worthy of his art. He would not labour to please any one about whose good will or good opinion he was indifferent. We are but too apt to encourage a flatterer, however much we may despise him. But of all compliments, that of deference, implied rather than expressed, is the most delicate and delightful. Its effect is irresistible. When this species of respect is paid to us in the presence of others by a person of respectability and judgment, it is especially agreeable. Lavater has very shrewdly remarked that he should set that man down as an inferior, who would listen to him in a tête-à-tête, but contradict him in the presence of a third person.
The Guardian recommends it as good policy to prepare ourselves for conversation, by looking further than our neighbours into the reigning subject. This method is not a bad one, though as the writer himself admits, a man coming full charged into company would be eager to unload at all risks, whether he had a handsome opportunity or not. Without exquisite good sense and discretion such a proceeding would involve him in many difficulties, which if he were less ambitious he might easily escape. A memory well stored with personal anecdotes and adventures is a glorious armoury for a talker, if he knows how to handle his weapons. But the worst of this species of triumph is its brevity. The best memory is soon exhausted, and though the anecdote-monger be delightful to new friends he is very