A PRELUDE AND THEME WITH VARIATIONS
“He praises a meditative life, and with evident sincerity:
but we feel that he liked nothing so well as good talk.”
—JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL: Walton.
I. PRELUDE—ON AN OLD, FOOLISH MAXIM
The inventor of the familiar maxim that “fishermen must not talk” is lost in the mists of antiquity, and well deserves his fate. For a more foolish rule, a conventionality more obscure and aimless in its tyranny, was never imposed upon an innocent and honourable occupation, to diminish its pleasure and discount its profits. Why, in the name of all that is genial, should anglers go about their harmless sport in stealthy silence like conspirators, or sit together in a boat, dumb, glum, and penitential, like naughty schoolboys on the bench of disgrace? ‘Tis an Omorcan superstition; a rule without a reason; a venerable, idiotic fashion invented to repress lively spirits and put a premium on stupidity.
For my part, I incline rather to the opinion of the Neapolitan fishermen who maintain that a certain amount of noise, of certain kinds, is likely to improve the fishing, and who have a particular song, very sweet and charming, which they sing to draw the fishes around them. It is narrated, likewise, of the good St. Brandan, that on his notable voyage from Ireland in search of Paradise, he chanted the service for St. Peter’s day so pleasantly that a subaqueous audience of all sorts and sizes was attracted, insomuch that the other monks began to be afraid, and begged the abbot that he would sing a little lower, for they were not quite sure of the intention of the congregation. Of St. Anthony of Padua it is said that he even succeeded in persuading the fishes, in great multitudes, to listen to a sermon; and that when it was ended (it must be noted that it was both short and cheerful) they bowed their heads and moved their bodies up and down with every mark of fondness and approval of what the holy father had spoken.
If we can believe this, surely we need not be incredulous of things which seem to be no less, but rather more, in harmony with the course of nature. Creatures who are sensible to the attractions of a sermon can hardly be indifferent to the charm of other kinds of discourse. I can easily imagine a company of grayling wishing to overhear a conversation between I. W. and his affectionate (but somewhat prodigal) son and servant, Charles Cotton; and surely every intelligent salmon in Scotland might have been glad to hear Christopher North and the Ettrick Shepherd bandy jests and swap stories. As for trout,—was there one in Massachusetts that would not have been curious to listen to the intimate opinions of Daniel Webster as he loafed along the banks of the Marshpee,—or is there one in Pennsylvania to-day that might not be drawn with interest and delight to the feet of Joseph Jefferson, telling how he conceived and wrote RIP VAN WINKLE on the banks of a trout-stream?
Fishermen must be silent? On the contrary, it is far more likely that good talk may promote good fishing.
All this, however, goes upon the assumption that fish can hear, in the proper sense of the word. And this, it must be confessed, is an assumption not yet fully verified. Experienced anglers and students of fishy ways are divided upon the question. It is beyond a doubt that all fishes, except the very lowest forms, have ears. But then so have all men; and yet we have the best authority for believing that there are many who “having ears, hear not.”
The ears of fishes, for the most part, are inclosed in their skull, and have no outward opening. Water conveys sound, as every country boy knows who has tried the experiment of diving to the bottom of the swimming-hole and knocking two big stones together. But I doubt whether any country boy, engaged in this interesting scientific experiment, has heard the conversation of his friends on the bank who were engaged in hiding his clothes.
There are many curious and more or less venerable stories to the effect that fishes may be trained to assemble at the ringing of a bell or the beating of a drum. Lucian, a writer of the second century, tells of a certain lake wherein many sacred fishes were kept, of which the largest had names given to them, and came when they were called. But Lucian was not a man of especially good reputation, and there is an air of improbability about his statement that the LARGEST fishes came. This is not the custom of the largest fishes.
In the present century there was a tale of an eel in a garden-well, in Scotland, which would come to be fed out of a spoon when the children called him by his singularly inappropriate name of Rob Roy. This seems a more likely story than Lucian’s; at all events it comes from a more orthodox atmosphere. But before giving it full credence, I should like to know whether the children, when they called “Rob Roy!” stood where the eel could see the spoon.
On the other side of the question, we may quote Mr. Ronalds, also a Scotchman, and the learned author of THE FLY-FISHER’S ENTOMOLOGY, who conducted a series of experiments which proved that even trout, the most fugacious of fish, are not in the least disturbed by the discharge of a gun, provided the flash is concealed. Mr. Henry P. Wells, the author of THE AMERICAN SALMON ANGLER, says that he has “never been able to make a sound in the air which seemed to produce the slightest effect upon trout in the water.”
So the controversy on the hearing of fishes continues, and the conclusion remains open. Every man is at liberty to embrace that side which pleases him best. You may think that the finny tribes are as sensitive to sound as Fine Ear, in the German fairy-tale, who could hear the grass grow. Or you may hold the opposite opinion, that they are
“Deafer than the blue-eyed cat.”
But whichever theory you adopt, in practice, if you are a wise fisherman, you will steer a middle course, between one thing which must be left undone and another thing which should be done. You will refrain from stamping on the bank, or knocking on the side of the boat, or dragging the anchor among the stones on the bottom; for when the water vibrates the fish are likely to vanish. But you will indulge as freely as you please in pleasant discourse with your comrade; for it is certain that fishing is never hindered, and may even be helped, in one way or another, by good talk.
I should therefore have no hesitation in advising any one to choose, for companionship on an angling expedition, long or short, a person who has the rare merit of being TALKABLE.
II. THEME—ON A SMALL, USEFUL VIRTUE
“Talkable” is not a new adjective. But it needs a new definition, and the complement of a corresponding noun. I would fain set down on paper some observations and reflections which may serve to make its meaning clear, and render due praise to that most excellent quality in man or woman,—especially in anglers,—the small but useful virtue of TALKABILITY.
Robert Louis Stevenson uses the word “talkable” in one of his essays to denote a certain distinction among the possible subjects of human speech. There are some things, he says in effect, about which you can really talk; and there are other things about which you cannot properly talk at all, but only dispute, or harangue, or prose, or moralize, or chatter.
After mature consideration I have arrived at the opinion that this distinction among the themes of speech is an illusion. It does not exist. All subjects, “the foolish things of the world, and the weak things of the world, and base things of the world, yea, and things that are not,” may provide matter for good talk, if only the right people are engaged in the enterprise. I know a man who can make a description of the weather as entertaining as a tune on the violin; and even on the threadbare theme of the waywardness of domestic servants, I have heard a discreet woman play the most diverting and instructive variations.
No, the quality of talkability does not mark a distinction among things; it denotes a difference among people. It is not an attribute unequally distributed among material objects and abstract ideas. It is a virtue which belongs to the mind and moral character of certain persons. It is a reciprocal human quality; active as well as passive; a power of bestowing and receiving.
An amiable person is one who has a capacity for loving and being loved. An affable person is one who is ready to speak and to be spoken to,—as, for example, Milton’s “affable archangel” Raphael; though it must be confessed that he laid the chief emphasis on the active side of his affability. A “clubable” person (to use a word which Dr. Samuel Johnson invented but did not put into his dictionary) is one who is fit for the familiar give and take of club-life. A talkable person, therefore, is one whose nature and disposition invite the easy interchange of thoughts and feelings, one in whose company it is a pleasure to talk or to be talked to.
Now this good quality of talkability is to be distinguished, very strictly and inflexibly, from the bad quality which imitates it and often brings it into discredit. I mean the vice of talkativeness. That is a selfish, one-sided, inharmonious affair, full of discomfort, and productive of most unchristian feelings.
You may observe the operations of this vice not only in human beings, but also in birds. All the birds in the bush can make some kind of a noise; and most of them like to do it; and some of them like it a great deal and do it very much. But it is not always for edification, nor are the most vociferous and garrulous birds commonly the most pleasing. A parrot, for instance, in your neighbour’s back yard, in the summer time, when the windows are open, is not an aid to the development of Christian character. I knew a man who had to stay in the city all summer, and in the autumn was asked to describe the character and social standing of a new family that had moved into his neighbourhood. Were they “nice people,” well-bred, intelligent, respectable? “Well,” said he, “I don’t know what your standards are, and would prefer not to say anything libellous; but I’ll tell you in a word,—they are the kind of people that keep a parrot.”
Then there is the English Sparrow! What an insufferable chatterbox, what an incurable scold, what a voluble and tiresome blackguard is this little feathered cockney. There is not a sweet or pleasant word in all his vocabulary.
I am convinced that he talks altogether of scandals and fights and street-sweepings.
The kingdom of ornithology is divided into two departments,—real birds and English sparrows. English sparrows are not real birds; they are little beasts.
There was a church in Brooklyn which was once covered with a great and spreading vine, in which the sparrows built innumerable nests. These ungodly little birds kept up such a din that it was impossible to hear the service of the sanctuary. The faithful clergy strained their voices to the verge of ministerial sore throat, but the people had no peace in their devotions until the vine was cut down, and the Anglican intruders were evicted.
A talkative person is like an English sparrow,—a bird that cannot sing, and will sing, and ought to be persuaded not to try to sing. But a talkable person has the gift that belongs to the wood thrush and the veery and the wren, the oriole and the white-throat and the rose-breasted grosbeak, the mockingbird and the robin (sometimes); and the brown thrush; yes, the brown thrush has it to perfection, if you can catch him alone,—the gift of being interesting, charming, delightful, in the most off-hand and various modes of utterance.
Talkability is not at all the same thing as eloquence. The eloquent man surprises, overwhelms, and sometimes paralyzes us by the display of his power. Great orators are seldom good talkers. Oratory in exercise is masterful and jealous, and intolerant of all interruptions. Oratory in preparation is silent, self-centred, uncommunicative. The painful truth of this remark may be seen in the row of countenances along the president’s table at a public banquet about nine o’clock in the evening. The bicycle-face seems unconstrained and merry by comparison with the after-dinner-speech-face. The flow of table-talk is corked by the anxious conception of post-prandial oratory.
Thackeray, in one of his ROUNDABOUT PAPERS, speaks of “the sin of tall-talking,” which, he says, “is the sin of schoolmasters, governesses, critics, sermoners, and instructors of young or old people.” But this is not in accord with my observation. I should say it was rather the sin of dilettanti who are ambitious of that high-stepping accomplishment which is called “conversational ability.”
This has usually, to my mind, something set and artificial about it, although in its most perfect form the art almost succeeds in concealing itself. But, at all events, ”conversation” is talk in evening dress, with perhaps a little powder and a touch of rouge. ‘T is like one of those wise virgins who are said to look their best by lamplight. And doubtless this is an excellent thing, and not without its advantages. But for my part, commend me to one who loses nothing by the early morning illumination,—one who brings all her attractions with her when she comes down to breakfast,—she is a very pleasant maid.
Talk is that form of human speech which is exempt from all duties, foreign and domestic. It is the nearest thing in the world to thinking and feeling aloud. It is necessarily not for publication,—solely an evidence of good faith and mutual kindness. You tell me what you have seen and what you are thinking about, because you take it for granted that it will interest and entertain me; and you listen to my replies and the recital of my adventures and opinions, because you know I like to tell them, and because you find something in them, of one kind or another, that you care to hear. It is a nice game, with easy, simple rules, and endless possibilities of variation. And if we go into it with the right spirit, and play it for love, without heavy stakes, the chances are that if we happen to be fairly talkable people we shall have one of the best things in the world,—a mighty good talk.
What is there in this anxious, hide-bound, tiresome existence of ours, more restful and remunerative? Montaigne says, “The use of it is more sweet than of any other action of life; and for that reason it is that, if I were compelled to choose, I should sooner, I think, consent to lose my sight than my hearing and speech.” The very aimlessness with which it proceeds, the serene disregard of all considerations of profit and propriety with which it follows its wandering course, and brings up anywhere or nowhere, to camp for the night, is one of its attractions. It is like a day’s fishing, not valuable chiefly for the fish you bring home, but for the pleasant country through which it leads you, and the state of personal well-being and health in which it leaves you, warmed, and cheered, and content with life and friendship.
The order in which you set out upon a talk, the path which you pursue, the rules which you observe or disregard, make but little difference in the end. You may follow the advice of Immanuel Kant if you like, and begin with the weather and the roads, and go on to current events, and wind up with history, art, and philosophy. Or you may reverse the order if you prefer, like that admirable talker Clarence King, who usually set sail on some highly abstract paradox, such as “Civilization is a nervous disease,” and landed in a tale of adventure in Mexico or the Rocky Mountains. Or you may follow the example of Edward Eggleston, who started in at the middle and worked out at either end, and sometimes at both. It makes no difference. If the thing is in you at all, you will find good matter for talk anywhere along the route. Hear what Montaigne says again: “In our discourse all subjects are alike to me; let there be neither weight nor depth, ‘t is all one; there is yet grace and pertinence; all there is tented with a mature and constant judgment, and mixed with goodness, freedom, gayety, and friendship.”
How close to the mark the old essayist sends his arrow! He is right about the essential qualities of good talk. They are not merely intellectual. They are moral. Goodness of heart, freedom of spirit, gayety of temper, and friendliness of disposition,—these are four fine things, and doubtless as acceptable to God as they are agreeable to men. The talkability which springs out of these qualities has its roots in a good soil. On such a plant one need not look for the poison berries of malign discourse, nor for the Dead Sea apples of frivolous mockery. But fair fruit will be there, pleasant to the sight and good for food, brought forth abundantly according to the season.
III. VARIATIONS—ON A PLEASANT PHRASE FROM MONTAIGNE
Montaigne has given as our text, “Goodness, freedom, gayety, and friendship,”—these are the conditions which produce talkability. And on this fourfold theme we may embroider a few variations, by way of exposition and enlargement.
GOODNESS is the first thing and the most needful. An ugly, envious, irritable disposition is not fitted for talk. The occasions for offence are too numerous, and the way into strife is too short and easy. A touch of good-natured combativeness, a fondness for brisk argument, a readiness to try a friendly bout with any comer, on any ground, is a decided advantage in a talker. It breaks up the offensive monotony of polite concurrence, and makes things lively. But quarrelsomeness is quite another affair, and very fatal.
I am always a little uneasy in a discourse with the Reverend Bellicosus Macduff. It is like playing golf on links liable to earthquakes. One never knows when the landscape will be thrown into convulsions. Macduff has a tendency to regard a difference of opinion as a personal insult. If he makes a bad stroke he seems to think that the way to retrieve it is to deliver the next one on the head of the other player. He does not tarry for the invitation to lay on; and before you know what has happened you find yourself in a position where you are obliged to cry, “Hold, enough!” and to be liberally damned without any bargain to that effect. This is discouraging, and calculated to make one wish that human intercourse might be put, as far as Macduff is concerned, upon the gold basis of silence.
On the other hand, what a delight it was to talk with that old worthy, Chancellor Howard Crosby. He was a fighting man for four or five generations hack, Dutch on one side, English on the other. But there was not one little drop of gall in his blood. His opinions were fixed to a degree; he loved to do battle for them; he never changed them—at least never in the course of the same discussion. He admired and respected a gallant adversary, and urged him on, with quips and puns and daring assaults and unqualified statements, to do his best. Easy victories were not to his taste. Even if he joined with you in laying out some common falsehood for burial, you might be sure that before the affair was concluded there would be every prospect of what an Irishman would call “an elegant wake.” If you stood up against him on one of his favorite subjects of discussion you must be prepared for hot work. You would have to take off your coat. But when the combat was over he would be the man to help you on with it again; and you would walk home together arm in arm, through the twilight, smoking the pipe of peace. Talk like that does good. It quickens the beating of the heart, and leaves no scars upon it.
But this manly spirit, which loves
“To drink delight of battle with its peers,”
is a very different thing from that mean, bad, hostile temper which loves to inflict wounds and injuries just for the sake of showing power, and which is never so happy as when it is making some one wince. There are such people in the world, and sometimes their brilliancy tempts us to forget their malignancy. But to have much converse with them is as if we should make playmates of rattlesnakes for their grace of movement and swiftness of stroke.
I knew a man once (I will not name him even with an initial) who was malignant to the core. Learned, industrious, accomplished, he kept all his talents at the service of a perfect genius for hatred. If you crossed his path but once, he would never cease to curse you. The grave might close over you, but he would revile your epitaph and mock at your memory. It was not even necessary that you should do anything to incur his enmity. It was enough to be upright and sincere and successful, to waken the wrath of this Shimei. Integrity was an offence to him, and excellence of any kind filled him with spleen. There was no good cause within his horizon that he did not give a bad word to, and no decent man in the community whom he did not try either to use or to abuse. To listen to him or to read what he had written was to learn to think a little worse of every one that he mentioned, and worst of all of him. He had the air of a gentleman, the vocabulary of a scholar, the style of a Junius, and the heart of a Thersites.
Talk, in such company, is impossible. The sense of something evil, lurking beneath the play of wit, is like the knowledge that there are snakes in the grass. Every step must be taken with fear. But the real pleasure of a walk through the meadow comes from the feeling of security, of ease, of safe and happy abandon to the mood of the moment. This ungirdled and unguarded felicity in mutual discourse depends, after all, upon the assurance of real goodness in your companion. I do not mean a stiff impeccability of conduct. Prudes and Pharisees are poor comrades. I mean simply goodness of heart, the wholesome, generous, kindly quality which thinketh no evil, rejoiceth not in iniquity, hopeth all things, endureth all things, and wisheth well to all men. Where you feel this quality you can let yourself go, in the ease of hearty talk.
FREEDOM is the second note that Montaigne strikes, and it is essential to the harmony of talking. Very careful, prudent, precise persons are seldom entertaining in familiar speech. They are like tennis players in too fine clothes. They think more of their costume than of the game.
A mania for absolutely correct pronunciation is fatal. The people who are afflicted with this painful ailment are as anxious about their utterance as dyspeptics about their diet. They move through their sentences as delicately as Agag walked. Their little airs of nicety, their starched cadences and frilled phrases seem as if they had just been taken out of a literary bandbox. If perchance you happen to misplace an accent, you shall see their eyebrows curl up like an interrogation mark, and they will ask you what authority you have for that pronunciation. As if, forsooth, a man could not talk without book-license! As if he must have a permit from some dusty lexicon before he can take a good word into his mouth and speak it out like the people with whom he has lived!
The truth is that the man who is very particular not to commit himself, in pronunciation or otherwise, and talks as if his remarks were being taken down in shorthand, and shudders at the thought of making a mistake, will hardly be able to open your heart or let out the best that is in his own.
Reserve and precision are a great protection to overrated reputations; but they are death to talk.
In talk it is not correctness of grammar nor elegance of enunciation that charms us; it is spirit, VERVE, the sudden turn of humour, the keen, pungent taste of life. For this reason a touch of dialect, a flavour of brogue, is delightful. Any dialect is classic that has conveyed beautiful thoughts. Who that ever talked with the poet Tennyson, when he let himself go, over the pipes, would miss the savour of his broad-rolling Lincolnshire vowels, now heightening the humour, now deepening the pathos, of his genuine manly speech? There are many good stories lingering in the memories of those who knew Dr. James McCosh, the late president of Princeton University,—stories too good, I fear, to get into a biography; but the best of them, in print, would not have the snap and vigour of the poorest of them, in talk, with his own inimitable Scotch-Irish brogue to set it forth.
A brogue is not a fault. It is a beauty, an heirloom, a distinction. A local accent is like a landed inheritance; it marks a man’s place in the world, tells where he comes from. Of course it is possible to have too much of it. A man does not need to carry the soil of his whole farm around with him on his boots. But, within limits, the accent of a native region is delightful. ‘T is the flavour of heather in the grouse, the taste of wild herbs and evergreen-buds in the venison. I like the maple-sugar tang of the Vermonter’s sharp-edged speech; the round, full-waisted r’s of Pennsylvania and Ohio; the soft, indolent vowels of the South. One of the best talkers now living is a schoolmaster from Virginia, Colonel Gordon McCabe. I once crossed the ocean with him on a stream of stories that reached from Liverpool to New York. He did not talk in the least like a book. He talked like a Virginian.
When Montaigne mentions GAYETY as the third clement of satisfying discourse, I fancy he does not mean mere fun, though that has its value at the right time and place. But there is another quality which is far more valuable and always fit. Indeed it underlies the best fun and makes it wholesome. It is cheerfulness, the temper which makes the best of things and squeezes the little drops of honey even out of thistle-blossoms. I think this is what Montaigne meant. Certainly it is what he had.
Cheerfulness is the background of all good talk. A sense of humour is a means of grace. With it I have heard a pleasant soul make even that most perilous of all subjects, the description of a long illness, entertaining. The various physicians moved through the recital as excellent comedians, and the medicines appeared like a succession of timely jests.
There is no occasion upon which this precious element of talkability comes out stronger than when we are on a journey. Travel with a cheerless and easily discouraged companion is an unadulterated misery. But a cheerful comrade is better than a waterproof coat and a foot-warmer.
I remember riding once with my lady Graygown fifteen miles through a cold rainstorm, in an open buckboard, over the worst road in the world, from LAC A LA BELLE RIVIERE to the Metabetchouan River. Such was the cheerfulness of her ejaculations (the only possible form of talk) that we arrived at our destination as warm and merry as if we had been sitting beside a roaring camp-fire.
But after all, the very best thing in good talk, and the thing that helps it most, is FRIENDSHIP. How it dissolves the barriers that divide us, and loosens all constraint, and diffuses itself like some fine old cordial through all the veins of life—this feeling that we understand and trust each other, and wish each other heartily well! Everything into which it really comes is good. It transforms letter-writing from a task into a pleasure. It makes music a thousand times more sweet. The people who play and sing not at us, but TO us,—how delightful it is to listen to them! Yes, there is a talkability that can express itself even without words. There is an exchange of thought and feeling which is happy alike in speech and in silence. It is quietness pervaded with friendship.
Having come thus far in the exposition of Montaigne, I shall conclude with an opinion of my own, even though I cannot quote a sentence of his to back it.
The one person of all the world in whom talkability is most desirable, and talkativeness least endurable, is a wife.