Littell's Living Age/Volume 130/Issue 1683/On Talkers

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From The Examiner.


A gentleman well known in literary circles for his inexhaustible flow of words was one day lamenting the decay of good conversationalists, when a very clever lady remarked that what she most regretted in the present day was the decay of good listeners. We fear the decay of good listeners is a sad and momentous fact, and proves the demoralized state of mind of the men and women of the present generation. It is not easy to be a good listener, for it requires certain high moral qualities. A man to listen well must be unselfish, he must be willing both to give and take. He must have powers of self-control, for he must be ready to give his mind for a moment into another man's custody. He must have a certain amount of deference and humility, which the man who accompanies your words with a running commentary of protest or contradiction does not possess. The person who lets his eye wander while you are talking to him shows that he is deficient in the first element of good breeding, courtesy. The eye of the good listener is one of the eyes which the poet and novelist have not remembered to extol. It is always serene, patient, and intelligent. It is sad to think how few persons will take the trouble of learning the art of attention in its simplest form. The majority who will not listen, however, do not hesitate in constantly demanding of their neighbors what Mark Antony asked as a favor of his countrymen, to "lend him their ears." When you have gratified their request they do not hesitate to inflict the greatest injury on those sensitive and much-abused organs. The sermons of Mr. Carlyle, preached in innumerable large volumes, on the text, "Silence is golden," have borne but little fruit. It is said of the elder Matthews that he suffered from a painful disease of the tongue, from having talked so much and so fast; we have often wondered that the disease is not more prevalent in the present day. No doubt, if the majority of people were more silent life might possibly become a little more dull, but it would be prolonged. The companion who is ever talking is no better than a murderer, and in a healthy state of society he would be hanged. The saddest part of the matter is that most men talk, not because they have anything to say, but because they have a dread that the world will discover that they have no great wit. If they would only read a book much despised in this clever age, but which contains many wise sayings, they would find it there stated that "even a fool when he holdeth his tongue is counted wise." How many a man has gained a reputation for having a great deal in him by the simple process of holding his tongue. It is, however, now rare to meet with any one who ever thinks of ruling that member. But still, although talking goes on in the world without intermission, conversation in its proper sense is fast dying out. Our talking, like our writing, is serious and dull, and is unrelieved by wit and brilliancy. There is no greater nuisance than when a company at dinner is forced to listen to two literary lions, who try to be clever and smart. No doubt it is pleasing to them, and to them only, but it is not conversation, because all present do not share in it. Nothing is more annoying than to find two men interrupt the easy flow of talk by a hot argumentation. As De Quincey says, "Mere good sense is sufficient, without any experience at all of high life, to point out the intolerable absurdity of allowing two angry champions to lock up and sequestrate, as it were, the whole social enjoyment of a large party, and compel them to sit in sad civility, witnesses of a contest which can interest the majority neither by its final object nor its management." There are a small class of men who mistake declamation for conversation. Coleridge was a good talker, but he spoilt it by too much declamation. The declamation of Coleridge was, however, instructive and brilliant, but the declamation of the modern littérateur can hardly, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered one or the other. No conversation was ever so delightful as that of Reynolds, Goldsmith, Burke, and Johnson. But then the famous club was composed of clever men who conversed freely on every subject, and who had steeped their minds in literature. In the present day most men limit their reading to their own writings. There are men whose sole conversation consists in putting forth the one idea they have borrowed from the leading article in the morning. But they are not nearly so disagreeable as the pretentious talker who talks his own article in a loud and authoritative voice. The leader-writer's talk as a rule consists in making pungent and exaggerated remarks on most topics. He carries his professional art into social life. It is not conversation, but it is amusing if not carried too far, and it is useful at times. The writer of social articles is a man who earns a miserable pittance by making bricks without straw, and he acquires the painful art of going on talking for any length of time about absolutely nothing. He is horribly vapid on nearly every subject, but he prattles to his unfortunate listeners like a giant rejoicing to run his course. Among young ladies in the country he can, however, generally ensure both attention and applause. The most spurious kind of talker is the middle-aged college don who has spent his vacation on the Continent, and who steals his new views and interpretations from foreign magazines. This is a very easy road to a reputation for sound learning in one of our universities. The most affected talker is the young college don who solves the enigma of free-will and constructs a philosophy of being in twenty minutes. He is fond of parading his small knowledge of Hegel and Herbert Spencer, and he is always expressing his deep regret that the university does not allow him a large endowment for the purposes of research. He is a man whom only an esoteric audience can appreciate or bring out to his best. To the common vulgar herd he is only a bore. He does not converse, but he expresses his opinions in a serene, confident voice. If you speak to him of Shakespeare he gives a sickly smile, and asks you if you have read Rosetti. He informs you that works of art can only be "appreciated by loving and reverent criticism," and that if you wish to understand an author you must get behind his soul. He will not discuss anything so vulgar as politics; but on green paper and china plates he can be eloquent. His language is nicely chosen, but it would be inconsistent with his genius to call things by the same names as are used by inferior men. There is only one thing of which he is ignorant. He is not aware that display of vanity is one of the most annoying of the minor social sins. A large view of life, however, ought to teach all of us to be tolerant of all things — even of the young Oxford prig and his talk.