1820 | London

The High-Raised Literary Tone

William Hazlitt’s tribute to the conversation of authors.

The conversation of authors is not so good as might be imagined, but such as it is (and with rare exceptions), it is better than any other. The proof of which is that when you are used to it, you cannot put up with any other. That of mixed company becomes utterly intolerable—you cannot sit out a common tea and card party, at least, if they pretend to talk at all. You are obliged in despair to cut all your old acquaintance who are not au fait on the prevailing and most smartly contested topics, who are not imbued with the high gusto of criticism and virtù. You cannot bear to hear a friend whom you have not seen for many years tell at how much a yard he sells his laces and tapes, when he means to move into his next house, when he heard last from his relations in the country, whether trade is alive or dead, or whether Mr. Such-a-one gets to looking old. This sort of neighborly gossip will not go down after the high-raised tone of literary conversation. The last may be very absurd, very unsatisfactory, and full of turbulence and heartburnings; but it has a zest in it which more ordinary topics of news or family affairs do not supply. Neither will the conversation of what we understand by gentlemen and men of fashion do after that of men of letters. It is flat, insipid, stale, and unprofitable in the comparison. They talk about much the same things—pictures, poetry, politics, plays—but they do it worse, and at a sort of vapid secondhand. They, in fact, talk out of newspapers and magazines, what we write there. They do not feel the same interest in the subjects they affect to handle with an air of fashionable condescension, nor have they the same knowledge of them, if they were ever so much in earnest in displaying it. If it were not for the wine and the dessert, no author in his senses would accept an invitation to a well-dressed dinner party, except out of pure good nature and unwillingness to disoblige by his refusal. Persons in high life talk almost entirely by rote. There are certain established modes of address and certain answers to them expected as a matter of course, as a point of etiquette. The studied forms of politeness do not give the greatest possible scope to an exuberance of wit or fancy. The fear of giving offense destroys sincerity, and without sincerity there can be no true enjoyment of society, nor unfettered exertion of intellectual activity. Those who have been accustomed to live with the great are hardly considered as conversible persons in literary society. They are not to be talked with, any more than puppets or echoes. They have no opinions but what will please, and you naturally turn away, as a waste of time and words, from attending to a person who just before assented to what you said, and whom you find, the moment after, from something that unexpectedly or perhaps by design drops from him, to be of a totally different way of thinking. This bush fighting is not regarded as fair play among scientific men. As fashionable conversation is a sacrifice to politeness, so the conversation of low life is nothing but rudeness. They contradict you without giving a reason, or if they do, it is a very bad one—swear, talk loud, repeat the same thing fifty times over, get to calling names, and from words proceed to blows. You cannot make companions of servants, or persons in an inferior station in life. You may talk to them on matters of business, and what they have to do for you (as lords talk to bruisers on subjects of fancy, or country squires to their grooms on horse racing) but out of that narrow sphere, to any general topic, you cannot lead them; the conversation soon flags, and you go back to the old question, or are obliged to break up the sitting for want of ideas in common. The conversation of authors is better than that of most professions. It is better than that of lawyers, who talk nothing but double entendre; than that of physicians, who talk of the approaching deaths of the college, or the marriage of some new practitioner with some rich widow; than that of divines, who talk of the last place they dined at; than that of university men, who make stale puns, repeat the refuse of the London newspapers, and affect an ignorance of Greek and mathematics; it is better than that of players, who talk of nothing but the greenroom, and rehearse the scholar, the wit, or the fine gentleman, like a part on the stage; or than that of ladies, who, whatever you talk of, think of nothing, and expect you to think of nothing, but themselves. It is not easy to keep up a conversation with women in company. It is thought a piece of rudeness to differ from them: it is not quite fair to ask them a reason for what they say. You are afraid of pressing too hard upon them, but where you cannot differ openly and unreservedly, you cannot heartily agree. It is not so in France. There the women talk of things in general, and reason better than the men in this country. They are mistresses of the intellectual foils. They are adepts in all the topics. They know what is to be said for and against all sorts of questions and are lively and full of mischief into the bargain. They are very subtle. They put you to your trumps immediately. Your logic is more in requisition even than your gallantry. You must argue as well as bow yourself into the good graces of these modern Amazons. What a situation for an Englishman to be placed in!

The fault of literary conversation in general is its too great tenaciousness. It fastens upon a subject and will not let it go. It resembles a battle rather than a skirmish and makes a toil of a pleasure. Perhaps it does this from necessity, from a consciousness of wanting the more familiar graces, the power to sport and trifle, to touch lightly and adorn agreeably, every view or turn of a question en passant, as it arises. Those who have a reputation to lose are too ambitious of shining, to please. “To excel in conversation,” said an ingenious man, “one must not be always striving to say good things: to say one good thing, one must say many bad, and more indifferent ones.” This desire to shine without the means at hand often makes men silent: “The fear of being silent strikes us dumb.” A writer who has been accustomed to take a connected view of a difficult question, and to work it out gradually in all its bearings, may be very deficient in that quickness and ease, which men of the world, who are in the habit of hearing a variety of opinions, who pick up an observation on one subject, and another on another, and who care about none any further than the passing away of an idle hour, usually acquire. An author has studied a particular point—he has read, he has inquired, he has thought a great deal upon it: he is not contented to take it up casually in common with others, to throw out a hint, to propose an objection. He will either remain silent, uneasy, and dissatisfied, or he will begin at the beginning and go through with it to the end. He is for taking the whole responsibility upon himself. He would be thought to understand the subject better than others, or indeed would show that nobody else knows anything about it. There are always three or four points on which the literary novice at his first outset in life fancies he can enlighten every company and bear down all opposition, but he is cured of this Quixotic and pugnacious spirit as he goes more into the world, where he finds that there are other opinions and other pretensions to be adjusted besides his own. When this asperity wears off, and a certain scholastic precocity is mellowed down, the conversation of men of letters becomes both interesting and instructive.

As a general rule, there is no conversation worth anything but between friends or those who agree in the same leading views of a subject. Nothing was ever learned by either side in a dispute. You contradict one another, will not allow a grain of sense in what your adversary advances, are blind to whatever makes against yourself, dare not look the question fairly in the face, so that you cannot avail yourself even of your real advantages, insist most on what you feel to be the weakest points of your argument, and get more and more absurd, dogmatical, and violent every moment. Disputes for victory generally end to the dissatisfaction of all parties.


William Hazlitt

From “On the Conversation of Authors.” Having spent three years of his childhood in America, Hazlitt around the age of eight observed to his father, “I think for my part that it would have been a great deal better if the white people had not found it out.” He tried his hand at painting, encouraged by Charles Lamb and William Wordsworth, but in 1805 he published his first book, On the Principles of Human Action. Over the next decade, Hazlitt established himself as an important essayist, writing on art, politics, and drama.