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gravity to challenge the higher rank. Yet, in fact, even here the more general purpose of conversation takes precedency; for, when dedicated to the objects of festal delight, conversation rises by its tendency to the rank of a fine art. It is true that not one man in a million rises to any distinction in this art; nor, whatever France may conceit of herself, has any one nation, amongst other nations, a real precedency in this art. The artists are rare indeed; but still the art, as distinguished from the artist, may, by its difficulties, by the quality of its graces, and by the range of its possible brilliancies, take as a fine art; or at all events, according to its powers of execution, it tends to that rank; whereas the best order of conversation that is simply ministerial to a purpose of use, cannot pretend to a higher name than that of a mechanic art.
In the course of our life we have heard much of what was reputed to be the select conversation of the day, and we have heard many of those who figured at the moment as effective talkers; yet in mere sincerity, and without a vestige of misanthropic retrospect, we must say, that never once has it happened to us to come away from any display of that nature without intense disappointment; and it always appeared to us that this failure (which soon ceased to be a disappointment) was inevitable by a necessity of the case. For here lay the stress of the difficulty ; almost all depends, in most trials of skill, upon the parity of those who are matched against each other. An ignorant person supposes that, to an able disputer, it must be an advantage to have a feeble opponent; whereas, on the contrary, it is ruin to him; for he cannot display his own powers but throngh something of a corresponding power in the resistance of his antagonist. A brilliant fencer is lost and confounded in playing with a novice; and the same thing takes place in playing at ball, or battledore, or in dancing, where a powerless partner does not enable you to shine the more, but reduces you to mere helplessness, and takes the wind altogether out of your sails. Now, if by some rare good luck the great talker—the protagonist—of the evening has been provided with a commensurate second, it is just possible that something like a brilliant “passage of arms” may be the result, though much, even in that case, will depend on the chances of the moment for furnishing a fortunate theme; and even then, amongst the superior part of the company, a feeling of deep vulgarity and of mountebank display is inseparable from such an ostentatious duel of wit. On the other hand, suppose your great talker to be received like any other visitor, and turned loose upon the company, then he must do one of two things; either he will talk upon outrè subjects specially tabooed to his own private use, in which case the great man has the air of a quack-doctor addressing a mob from a street stage; or else he will talk like ordinary people upon popular topics; in which case the company, out of natural politeness, that they may not seem to be staring at him as a lion, will hasten to meet him in the same style; the conversation will become general; the great man will seem reasonable and well-bred; but at the same time, we grieve to say it, the great man will have been extinguished by being drawn off from his exclusive ground.
Yet surely Coleridge had such a reputation (for brilliant talking), and without needing any collusion at all; for Coleridge, unless he could have all the talk, would have none. But then this was not conversation; it was not colloquium, or talking with the company, but alloquium, or talking to the company. As Madame de Staël observed, Coleridge talked, and could talk, only by monologue. Such a mode of systematic trespass upon the conversational rights of a whole party, gathered together under pretense of amusement, is fatal to every purpose of social intercourse, whether that purpose be connected with direct use and the service of the intellect, or with the general graces and amenities of life.
We see the same temper illustrated at times in traveling; a brutal person, as we are disposed at first to pronounce him, but more frequently one who yields unconsciously to a lethargy of selfishness, plants himself at the public fireplac so as to exclude his fellow-travelers from all but a fraction of the warmth. Yet he does not do this in a spirit of willful aggression upon others; he has but a glimmering suspicion of the odious shape which his own act assumes to others, for the luxurious torpor of self-indulgence has extended its mists to the energy and clearness of his perceptions. Meantime, Coleridge's habit of soliloquizing through a whole evening of four or five hours had its origin neither in arrogance nor in absolute selfishness. The fact was that he could not talk unless he were uninterrupted, and unless he were able to count upon this concession from the company. It was a silent contract between him and his hearers, that nobody should speak but himself. If any man objected to this arrangement, why did he come? For the custom of the place, the lex loci, being notorious, by coming at all he was understood to profess his allegiance to the autocrat who presided. It was not, therefore, by an insolent usurpation that Coleridge persisted in monology through his whole life, but in virtue of a concession from the kindness and respect of his friends. You could not be angry with him for using his privilege, for it was a privilege conferred by others, and a privilege which he was ready to resign as soon as any man demurred to it. But though reconciled to it by these considerations, and by the ability with which he used it, you could not but feelt hat it worked ill for all parties. Himself it tempted often times into pure garrulity of egotism, and the listeners it reduced to a state of debilitated sympathy or of absolute torpor. Prevented by the custom from putting questions, from proposing doubts, from asking for explanations, reäcting by no mode of mental activity, and condemned also to the mental distress of hearing opin. ions or do trines stream past them by flights which they must not arrest for a moment, so as even to take a note of them, and which yet they could not often understand, or, sceming to understand, could not always approve, the audience sunk at times into a listless condition of inanimate vacuity. To be acted upon forever, but never to react, is fatal to the very powers by which sympathy must grow, or by which intelligent admiration can be evoked. For his own sake, it was Coleridge's interest to have forced his hearers into the active commerce of question and answer, of objection and demur. Not otherwise was it possible that even the attention could be kept from drooping, or the coherency and dependency of the arguments be forced into light.
The French rarely make a mistake of this nature. The graceful levity of the nation could not easily err in this direction, nor tolerate such deliration in the greatest of men. Not the gay temperament only of the French people, but the particular qualities of the French language, (which however poor for the higher purposes of passion) is rich beyond all others for purposes of social intercourse, prompt them to rapid and vivacious exchange of thought. It is not strange, therefore, that Madame de Staël noticed little as extraordinary in Coleridge beyond this one capital monstrosity of unlimited soliloquy, that being a peculiarity which she never could have witnessed in France; and, considering the burnish of her French tastes in all that concerned colloquial characteristics, it is creditable to her forbearance that she noticed even this rather as a memorable fact than as the inhuman fault which it was. On the other hand, Coleridge was not so forbearing as regarded the brilliant French lady. He spoke of her to ourselves as a very frivolous person, and in short summary terms that disdained to linger upon a subject so inconsiderable. It is remarkable that Goethe and Schiller both conversed with Madame de Staël, like Coleridge, and both spoke of her afterwards in the same disparaging terms as Coleridge. But it is equally remarkable that Baron William Humboldt, who was personally acquainted with all the four parties,–Madame de Staël, Goethe, Schiller, and Coleridge,--gave it as his opinion (in letters subsequently published) that the lady had been calumniated through a very ignoble cause, namely, mere ignorance of the French language, or, at least, non-familiarity with the fluences of oral French. Neither Goethe nor Schiller, though well acquainted with written French, had any command of it for purposes of rapid conversation ; and Humboldt supposes that mere spite at the trouble whieh they found in limping after the lady so as to catch one thought that she uttered, had been the true cause of their unfavorable sentence upon her. Not malice aforethought, so much as vindictive fury for the sufferings they had end ed, accounted for their severity in the opinion of the diplomatic baron. He did not extend the same explanation to Coleridge's case, because, though even then in habits of intercourse with Coleridge, he had not heard of his interview with the lady, nor of the results from that interview ; else what was true of the two German wits was true d fortiori of Coleridge; the Germans at least read French and talked it slowly, and occasionally understood it when talked by others. But Coleridge did none of these things.
It will come to be considered an infringement of the general rights for any man to detain the conversation, or arrest its movement, for more than a short space of time, which gradually will be more and more defined. This one curtailment of arrogant pretensions will lead to others. Egotism will no longer freeze the openings to intellectual discussions; and conversation will then become, what it never has been before, a powerful ally of education, and generally of self-culture. The main diseases that besiege conversation at present are
Ist. The want of timing. Those who are not recalled, by a sense of courtesy and equity, to the continual remembrance that, in appropriating too large a share of the conversation, they are committing a fraud upon their companions, are beyond all control of monitory hints or of reproof; which does not take a direct and open shape of personal remonstrance; but this, where the purpose of the assembly is festive and convivial, bears too harsh an expression for most people's feelings. That objection, however, would not apply to any mode of admonition that was universally established. A public memento carries with it no personality. For instance, in the Roman law-courts, no advocate complained of the clepsydra, or water timepiece, which regulated the duration of his pleadings. Now, such a contrivance would not be impracticable at an after-dinner talk. To invert the clepsydra, when all the water had run out, would be an act open to any one of the guests, and liable to no misconstruction, when this check was generally applied, and understood to be a simple expression of public defense, not of private rudeness or personality. The clepsydra ought to be filled with some brilliantly colored fluid, to be placed in the centre of the table, and with the capacity, at the very most, of the little minute glasses used for regu" lating the boiling of eggs. It would obviously be insupportably tedious to turn the glass every two or three minutes ; but to do so occasionally would avail as a sufficient memento to the company.
2d. Conversation suffers from the want of some discretional power lodged in an individual for controlling its movements. Very often it sinks into flats of insipidity through mere accident. Some trifle has turned its current upon
ground where few of the company have anything to say—the commerce of thought languishes; and the consciousness that it is languishing about a narrow cirole, “ unde pedem proferre pudor vetat," operates for the general refrigeration of the company. Now, the ancient Greeks had an officer appointed over every convivial meeting, whose functions applied to all cases of doubt or interruption that could threaten the genial harmony of the company. We also have such officers-presidents, vice-presidents, &c.; and we need only to extend their powers, so that they may exercise over the movement of the conversation the beneficial influence of the Athenian symposiarch. At present the evil is, that conversation has no authorized originator; it is servile to the accidents of the moment; and generally these accidents are merely verbal. Some word or some name is dropped casually in the course of an illustration ; and that is allowed to suggest a topic, though neither interesting to the majority of the persons present, nor leading naturally into other collateral topics that are more so. Now, in such cases it will be the business of the symposiarch to restore the interest of the conversation, and to rekindle its animation, by recalling it from any tracks of dullness or sterility into which it may have rambled. The natural excursiveness of colloquial intercourse, its tendency to advance by subtle links of association, is one of its advantages; but mere vagrancy from passive acquiescence in the direction given to it by chance or by any verbal accident, is amongst its worst diseases. The business of the symposiarch will be, to watch these morbid tendencies, which are not the deviations of graceful freedom, but the distortions of imbecility and collapse. His business it will also be to derive occasions of discussion hearing a general and permanent interest from the fleeting events of the casual disputes of the day. His business again it will be to bring back a subject that has been imperfectly discussed, and has yielded but half of the interest which it promises, under the interruption of any accident which may have carried the thoughts of the party into less attractive channels. Lastly, it should be an express office of education to form a particular style, cleansed from verbiage, from elaborate parenthesis, and from circumlocution, as the only style fitted for a purpose which is one of pure enjoyment.
Many other suggestions for the improvement of conversation might be brought forward with ampler limits; and especially for that class of conversation which moves by discussion, a whole code of regulations might be proposed, that would equally promote the interests of the individual speakers and the puplic interests of the truth involved in the question discussed. Meantime nobody is more aware than we are, that no style of conversation is more essentially vulgar than that which moves by disputation. This is the vice of the young and the inexperienced, but especially of those amongst them who are fresh from academic life. But discussion is not necessarily disputation; and the two orders of conversation-that, on the one hand, which contemplates an interest of know.edge, and of the self-developing intellect; that, on the other hand, which forms one and the widest amongst the gay embellishments of life—will always advance together. Whatever may remain of illiberal in the first, will correct itself, or will tend to correct itself, by the model held up in the second ; and thus the great organ of social intercourse, by means of speech, which hitherto has done little for man, except through the channel of its ministrations to the direct business of daily necessities, will at length rise into a rivalship with books, and become fixed amongst the alliances of intellectual progress, not less than amongst the ornamental accomplishments of convivial life.
EDUCATION, STUDIES, AND CONDUCT.
SUGGESTIONS AND ENCOURAGEMENTS FOR SELF-EDUCATION.
LETTERS OF THOMAS DE QUINCEY TO A YOUNG MAN WHOSE EDUCATION
HAD BEEN NEGLECTED. The following suggestions are taken from a series of Letters addressed by the author to a young man, whose early education had been neglected, but who, coming to the possession of abundant means, and to the consciousness of his own intellectual deficiencies, applied to Mr. De Quincey for a plan of study and reading by which he might supply them. The entire series, if completed, we have not seen in print, and must confine our extracts to the preliminary suggestions, leaving out much which is valuable: MY DEAR SIR,
Your cousin L- has explained to me all that your own letter had left imperfect; in particular, how it was that you came to be defrauded of the education to which even your earliest and humblest prospects had entitled you; by what heroic efforts, but how vainly, you labored to repair that greatest of losses; what remarkable events concurred to raise you to your present state of prosperity; and all other circumstances which appeared necessary to put me fully in possession of your present wishes and intentions.
The two questions which you addressed to me through him I have answered below: these were questions which I could answer easily and without meditation; but for the main subject of our future correspondence, it is so weighty, and demands such close attention (as even I find, who have revolved the principal points almost daily for many years), that I would willingly keep it wholly distinct from the hasty letter which I am now obliged to write ; on which account it is that I shall forbear to enter at present upon the series of letters which I have promised, even if I should find that my time were not exhausted by the answers to your two questions below. . . .
To your first question,—whether to you, with your purposes and at your age of thirty-two, a residence at either of our English universities, or at any foreign university, can be of much service ? — my answer is, firmly and unhesitatingly, no. The majority of the undergraduates of your own standing, in an academic sense, will be your juniors by twelve or fourteen years; a disparity of age which could not but make your society mutually burthensome. What, then, is it that you would seek in a university ? Lectures? These, whether public or private, are surely the very worst modes of acquiring any sort of accurate knowledge; and are just as much inferior to a good book on the same subject, as that book, hastily read aloud and then immediately withdrawn, would be inferior to the same book, left in your possession, and open at any hour, to be consulted, retraced, collated, and, in the fullest sense, studied. But, besides this, university lectures are naturally adapted, not so much to the general purpose of communicating knowledge, as to the specific