No. 26.


L O I T E R E R.

"Speak of us as we are."


And sold by C. S. RANN, OXFORD;
Messr. EGERTONS, Whitehall, LONDON; Messrs. PEARSON




L O I T E R E R.

SATURDAY, July 25, 1789.

Je rends au public ce qu'il m'a prêté.
                        LA BRUYERE.

WHEN in composing a Loiterer, or in following any other studies, I have insensibly fallen into more intense thought than is congenial to my system, I find certain and immediate relief in the conversation of a few friends, whom many successive years have gradually placed at my side, and in whom commanding talents are so tempered by complying manners, that if at any time I feel more than ordinary self-complacency, it is when I reflect that I have been able to draw round me such a circle: Living in rivalship without enmity, and familiarity without distaste, we mutually derive from conversation assistance in study, and delight in relaxation.

Most of my readers of both sexes have also their little circles, in which they enjoy the satisfaction of talking and being talked to; and however they may be divided which affords most pleasure, there are few but will agree, that little can exist where they are precluded from both. I am inclined to believe that the most conversable are, if not the most happy, yet the least unhappy members of society: For grief, fear, and anxiety are abstracted and silent; but joy, hope, and contentment have an ear open to every tale, and a tongue ready to fill every pause.

Perhaps the pleasure of conversation is often exclusive of any actual wit or sense contained in it; for who but has listened with pleasure to the bewitching nothings of a pretty woman, and thought her periods sufficiently rounded by a sweet and voluble utterance, and sufficiently pointed by a piercing eye?

But though conversation may be generally a source of pleasure, and rarely of pain, it not infrequently wearies and offends by impertinence. In many instance indeed, the company can stifle or promote a topic, silence or encourage a speaker, at will; but where superiority of age or fortune sanction prolixity or insipidity, the remedy is not always practicable, and if one man will expose himself, the rest must submit to look. I shall therefore recall to my readers a few characters, which probably every one of them has met and condemned; in which he who is free from their errors may see his danger and avoid it, and he who has inadvertently fallen into them may perceive his folly and reform. And it is certainly more desirable that a Man should discover his own want of wisdom, than that others should be reduced to the necessity of informing him that he is a fool.

In the circles of men, few characters are more frequent than one who fastens on some stranger who happens to have visited or to reside in his neighbourhood, with whom he runs over a catalogue of names, and a register of minute circumstances, unintelligible to others, and unimportant to himself. Enumerating every person with whom he has dined or danced, he details their concerns without interest, and characterizes them without discrimination. Unwearied in enquiries not prompted by desire of rejoicing with the fortunate or condoling with the wretched, he listens to the relation of calamity without pain, of good fortune without pleasure. Whether the objects of his enquiry be sinking into poverty, or rising into wealth, whether sick, dying, or dead, he hears their story with the same vacant composure of muscle, the same complacent nod of apprehension. Happy is the company, when the fortunate lapse of a letter in the recollection of a name, or some confusion in ascertaining a particular day or place, suspends his volubility!

Equally frequent and wearisome is the man who is in the opposite extreme. As the conversation of the one is more copious than fluent, that of the other is more fluent than copious: The one bewilders himself among a thousand different persons and things, the other confines himself to a very few favourite topics. It is sometimes amusing to observe with what dexterity he conducts the discourse round to his darling subjects, and with what delight he expatiates on the well-known ground. I have an old and respectable acquaintance somewhat of this description; and when he falls into these harangues, he sometimes brings so lively to my recollection that place and time in which I first heard them, that I almost doubt whether all which has intervened is not a dream, and half persuade myself that I am several years younger, and in quite a different part of the kingdom, than I afterwards find I really am. But let me be just to his merits. — One sometimes is indisposed to talk or listen, yet neither affects silence and solitude: at such seasons, what hours of indescribable luxury have I passed in the conversation of my friend!

Another leading personage is one who sits mute while the conversation continues general, and scarcely seems to exist ‘till he has turned it against some unfortunate individual: Unable to shine by his own light, he seeks relief in the darkness of another. One of this character is found in most small societies and two or three in every Common Room. He may be easily distinguished; for when he enters the company, argument is relinquished and laughter subsides, and a general silence of expectation and apprehension prevails, ‘till it appears who is to be singled out for the evening’s persecution. When once the spirit of raillery is conjured up, every one becomes interested in fixing it in its circle, and the whole evening wastes away in the distresses of one man, and the ungenerous triumph of the rest: and while all are actuated by one illiberal feeling and unite in one fruitless purpose, no mutual courtesies refine the manners, no collision of sentiments strengthens the taste, no interchange of information enriches the mind.

But of all impertinents he is the most insufferable who talks from books “in great swaths.” — He is positive in his assertions because he believes he has read them, and angry if they are controverted because he has not a single idea by which he can maintain them. In what inextricable confusion have I seen such a man involve himself and all around him, by having turned over two leaves together or overlooked a comma in a critical place. Such a character generally possesses a feeble intellect, which entirely bends under the weight of studies which, with violence to nature, he pertinaciously imposes on himself. You may track him through all the labyrinth of his reading by the thread of his conversation: his mind is a shallow stream, where every accession of rubbish appears above the surface.

Disgusted at the frequent recurrence of such characters among men, we fly to female circles: In women we persuade ourselves trifling will lose its insipidity, ignorance its arrogance, and mirth its licentiousness. A little experience teaches us that the conversable qualifications of both sexes are very equally poised.

In most companies we observe a lady who draws her chair close to one of her own sex, with whom she discusses all those important topics which transfer the burden of entertainment from the brain, which is susceptible of every exertion, to the tongue, which is proof against all fatigue. While she thus breaks the current of conversation, she wonders at its want of fluency, and by the significant glances which she darts around her at every pause, silently reproves an inattention in the men which she seems studious to provoke. At length she retires from the company full of complaints of its insipidity, forgetting that to one which mixes not in the discourse, sense will often seem dull, and wit pointless; and that they who bring indifference into society, will depart with disgust.

Another character equally frequent is one who, after the customary forms of salutation, addresses herself to none, and if any man address her, inclines them with frigid composure of feature and averted eye. Not content to withhold by her silence the contributions due from herself to the general fund of amusement, by her prying looks and intent posture she becomes a restraint upon others. Not a compliment passes on one side, or an acknowledgement on the other, but that at her return home she details it to a maiden aunt or a younger sister, with a vivacity and volubility, an hundredth part of which, seasonably exerted, would make her one of the most agreeable companions in the world.

But above all in folly is she, whom the weak of both sexes term a sensible woman . To complement her is an impeachment of her understanding; to argue with her, an insult to her charms. If a man contradicts him, she openly affronts him; if he assent, she secretly despises him. She is fastidious to shew her judgement, and sarcastic to exercise her wit. If the company is gay, she is all gravity and reserve; if serious, all vivacity and levity; She is invariably careful never to join in the prevailing topic, at which she is ever disposed to sneer, as too superficial, or too profound. — If a character of this description be of an age verging on thirty, and yet of the sisterhood of virgins (which not infrequently happens) she becomes particularly troublesome to the men, whose company she avowedly affects, declaiming on the inanity of her own sex; a preference, for which the one feels little gratitude, and the other little concern. — Such a character is generally a very extensive and excursive reader. Her favourite volume is a thin folio, which takes up much room and contains little matter. One subject is not more difficult to her than another, except as it employs a greater number of pages, and if a sentence be but fairly printed, she seldom finds any obscurity . — There is a very literary lady, esteemed a great ornament to our family, who often lays down Reid and Horsley, and runs over the Loiterer without the least remission of the wisdom which on these occasions she summons into her countenance. Under the pressure of most of the mortifications of life, I preserve a tolerable balance of temper; but I confess this circumstance sometimes sways me from my wonted equability.

But to return to my subject. — A thousand other improprieties might be pointed out, which ought to be avoided by all who wish to excel in conversation. One man cuts you short in the middle of your speech by contradiction; another, which is still more vexatious, by assent. One discountenances your brightest sallies with provoking gravity; another has always a laugh ready to approve your gravest remarks. Most of these errors may be considered as the effect of affectation : And perhaps one general maxim may be sufficient to direct us in conversation. — We may study to conceal our defects — let us leave our excellencies to display themselves.


                   < < Previous                                                         List of Issues                                                   Next > >

Sophia's Home page