To an illustrious friend on his wearisome Chatterer

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To an illustrious friend on his wearisome Chatterer
by Thomas Browne
Source British Museum MS 1827

Latin translation from the Collected Works of Sir Thomas Browne, vol. 4 ed. Simon Wilkins Fletcher and Sons 1835-6 Norwich

A ventriloquist stretches me to the fifth hole and tortures me on the cruellest rack; yours is a parasite, a busy-body of the Sacred Way, who wearies me with his stories, trifles and unceasing word-nonsense when I am looking for quiet, does not spare me when I am going to bed, hands me over half-asleep to the torturer.

I bring the day to its close with a murderous weariness of words, I lie sleepless at night, my wakeful nose snores in vain. The moon will die before that lunatic is silent; unless Mercury soothes him down with his wand or turns him into a fish, it is hopeless to think of sleep.

It is useless for you to spread your table, vain to invite your guests; where that pea and nut merchant dines, the cross-river walker or anyone from the bridge will refuse. Even those who cultivate the long shadow are less afraid of a shade from the dead than of your shadower. Starving men would rather dine at home than face his inanities and even those who lick the salt at home will flee unfed, except the chairman pounce on him when he fools at the feast.

Like a novice on the stage of affairs he offers commonplaces as novelties. In all this chatter he mixes earth and sky, marries Tiber to Araxis, Tagus to Liger. So as to seize control of the talk he rejoices in comets, floods, earthquakes, cheerfully looks out for omens, prodigies, marvels which other men pray to avoid. And if he is short of these he pours forth out of the way tales and astrologers’ nonsense. Or butts in out of turn with what happened in his childhood or his last night’s dream and, babbling pot-bearer and rumour-monger, puts his hearers in a fever. What could be said all at once is wrapped in a large packet, he can never talk briefly unless I prod him in the side. I ask him the time of day and if he stops talking in half an hour I think it laconic; if I ask him how old he is, I am told his life-history, and there he makes a long trail to arrive at trivialities, and finally he lets me go at sunset, riddled with weariness, like a frog in the desert. Reticence and philosophical reserve he considers the dumbness of a madman and an invalid’s whim. He would have Harpocrates hanged, chatters in church and, a Siren in himself, sings even to the deaf. You must hit him with your stick if you want him to stop, it is the only argument he admits.

That raucous fellow, that wandering Homer who recites to me without a pause, needs an elocution master. I wish his voice were black, dark, Neronian, so that I may either escape the epic of Ulysses or yield to a milder fate.

That chafferer and chatterer does not know that he makes more noise than the sea-shore rattling its pebbles, while he holds me with his talkativeness, nor what tragedies his comic face enacts while he murders with his grin. With his stale words as he flows on in talk he holds over you a shining ivy-wreath of agreeability like a kind of friendly yoke. Now countrified and uncouth, with his tasteless blanket of words, with his village jokes from beyond the pale, the little wretch, who ought to be sent to the gladiators, stirs my bile and stomach and soaks me in a veritable English sweat.

It is not me alone that he crucifies. That fool talker, that A 1 blatherer, empties the theatre. When he crows every wind-player slips away at once: the flutes, the pipers, the keeners, the singers to the waxing moon, betake themselves to flight.

Yet that Ardelio rages with his pen as well as his tongue, equally loquacious and scribacious. There is no pleasure for me in reading, still less in studying his rubbish, so while I skim it, I feel at my last gasp and have to pause frequently. For besides all that he enjoys writing on the face of the sheet he punishes me with what he has written overleaf and on the back. Not satisfied with the folds in the paper, he fills up the margin, ploughs his field both ways and uses the blank space too. And he never uses complete words but writes in abbreviations. From all this weariness I can only get off by fire and sword; and so escape the tyranny of his notebooks and a Cassian’s martyrdom.

He wears out your best friends not only by pestering them with nonsensical and vexatious letters but by the fear of his papers piling up with a final flourish (which the talkative love to happen). But I would rather gather his bones than his writings, which are drunk with hellebore, not divinely inspired; I should never display them in peragamen splendour; I should either put them down the drain or send them round the barber’s shops or to the worthless crowd that follows Pompey or Agenor’s girl.

They listen too late, poor wretches, who lend their ears to this spinner, for no one who tries to say a word, let alone put an end to his talk, can spend enough words to upset him, no one is fluent enough to stop his impudence or leave him speechless. When poor friends visit him he batters them miserably at both ears. He has no shame in wearing out with talk the people he meets in the street and only lets them go at dusk broken-backed and leg-weary. That black, that wrinkled Ardelio talks not merely broken glass but poison, while (what is common in mouthers) he is a vile whisperer and insinuator, spreads abuse on every side, creates disputes, opens up secrets and with mutterings like this spoils friends and time. He should envy the purblind, for he looks so sharply at his friends’ peccadilloes that he overlooks his own follies; and without troubling himself ruins others.

If there is room for Pythagorean theory, I believe this fellow was a cuckoo and has become a man without putting his voice into human dress. Now he ought to change, under heaven’s ban, into a cricket, and twittering in the lanes crack the branches rather than men’s ears. Perhaps he is one of those who cry out in the mother’s womb before birth, who talk in their sleep, roar when in pain, whom no gorgon silences. He would be a much abler watchman for the Capitol than all the geese. When he is there, no one can doze on guard, still less in their tents. If I had my way he would be sent to Sparta not to Anticycra, to change his talkativeness to silence, or be whipped before the altars till he learns silence the hard way.

Swinging my arms and with my longest stride I fly him in vain; you could hardly get away from him in a race. Anyone whom flight could encourage must be an Achilles for speed or born under the Dolphin. But seizing my hand more fiercely than the gout with Vulcan-like bonds he prevents my fleeing, and while I breathlessly attempt it, while I search my pockets to buy myself off, I make a fool of myself and a show for the bystanders.

So, wholly upset, I long for the deserts of Scythia, I envy those happy dwellers near the falls of the Nile, and think the deaf in heaven. In my misery I seek cover, I escape into darkness, but it is easier to avoid the sunlight than this dark-face. Unless some goddess out of Homer carries me off in a cloud, I hasten to the majority.

On the verge of despair, crushed, broken-winded, with no incense to offer I call wildly on the Deliverer, I pray in vain to heaven for deliverance and safety; what Innocentia or Aurea Mica will set me free? I am more exposed to bears, tigers, elephants than a gladiator, I am down on the show-ground- for I find all these perils in this single busy-body.

But enough of these chestnuts. Send this bore away, or slip out of the back door. Fly swiftly to Norwich, where fair and learned minds await you. Eat up the road, then, if you are sensible. Farewell.