Table Talk : Essays on Men and Manners, by William Hazlitt

Essay iv.

On Coffee-house Politicians

There is a set of people who fairly come under this denomination. They spend their time and their breath in coffee-houses and other places of public resort, hearing or repeating some new thing. They sit with a paper in their hands in the morning, and with a pipe in their mouths in the evening, discussing the contents of it. The Times, the Morning Chronicle, and the Herald are necessary to their existence: in them ‘they live and move and have their being.’ The Evening Paper is impatiently expected and called for at a certain critical minute: the news of the morning becomes stale and vapid by the dinner-hour. A fresher interest is required, an appetite for the latest-stirring information is excited with the return of their meals; and a glass of old port or humming ale hardly relishes as it ought without the infusion of some lively topic that had its birth with the day, and perishes before night. ‘Then come in the sweets of the evening’:— the Queen, the coronation, the last new play, the next fight, the insurrection of the Greeks or Neapolitans, the price of stocks, or death of kings, keep them on the alert till bedtime. No question comes amiss to them that is quite new — none is ever heard of that is at all old.

That of an hour’s age doth hiss the speaker.

The World before the Flood or the Intermediate State of the Soul are never once thought of — such is the quick succession of subjects, the suddenness and fugitiveness of the interest taken in them, that the Twopenny Post Bag would be at present looked upon as an old-fashioned publication; and the Battle of Waterloo, like the proverb, is somewhat musty. It is strange that people should take so much interest at one time in what they so soon forget; — the truth is, they feel no interest in it at any time, but it does for something to talk about. Their ideas are served up to them, like their bill of fare, for the day; and the whole creation, history, war, politics, morals, poetry, metaphysics, is to them like a file of antedated newspapers, of no use, not even for reference, except the one which lies on the table! You cannot take any of these persons at a greater disadvantage than before they are provided with their cue for the day. They ask with a face of dreary vacuity, ‘Have you anything new?’— and on receiving an answer in the negative, have nothing further to say. (They are like an oyster at the ebb of the tide, gaping for fresh tidings.) Talk of the Westminster Election, the Bridge Street Association, or Mr. Cobbett’s Letter to John Cropper of Liverpool, and they are alive again. Beyond the last twenty-four hours, or the narrow round in which they move, they are utterly to seek, without ideas, feelings, interests, apprehensions of any sort; so that if you betray any knowledge beyond the vulgar routine of SECOND EDITIONS and first-hand private intelligence, you pass with them for a dull fellow, not acquainted with what is going forward in the world, or with the practical value of things. I have known a person of this stamp censure John Cam Hobhouse for referring so often as he does to the affairs of the Greeks and Romans, as if the affairs of the nation were not sufficient for his hands: another asks you if a general in modern times cannot throw a bridge over a river without having studied Caesar’s Commentaries; and a third cannot see the use of the learned languages, as he has observed that the greatest proficients in them are rather taciturn than otherwise, and hesitate in their speech more than other people. A dearth of general information is almost necessary to the thorough-paced coffee-house politician; in the absence of thought, imagination, sentiment, he is attracted immediately to the nearest commonplace, and floats through the chosen regions of noise and empty rumours without difficulty and without distraction. Meet ‘any six of these men in buckram,’ and they will accost you with the same question and the same answer: they have seen it somewhere in print, or had it from some city oracle, that morning; and the sooner they vent their opinions the better, for they will not keep. Like tickets of admission to the theatre for a particular evening, they must be used immediately, or they will be worth nothing: and the object is to find auditors for the one and customers for the other, neither of which is difficult; since people who have no ideas of their own are glad to hear what any one else has to say, as those who have not free admissions to the play will very obligingly take up with an occasional order. It sometimes gives one a melancholy but mixed sensation to see one of the better sort of this class of politicians, not without talents or learning, absorbed for fifty years together in the all-engrossing topic of the day: mounting on it for exercise and recreation of his faculties, like the great horse at a riding-school, and after his short, improgressive, untired career, dismounting just where he got up; flying abroad in continual consternation on the wings of all the newspapers; waving his arm like a pump-handle in sign of constant change, and spouting out torrents of puddled politics from his mouth; dead to all interests but those of the state; seemingly neither older nor wiser for age; unaccountably enthusiastic, stupidly romantic, and actuated by no other motive than the mechanical operations of the spirit of newsmongering.60

‘What things,’ exclaims Beaumont in his verses to Ben Jonson, ‘have we not seen done at the Mermaid!

‘Then when there hath been thrown

Wit able enough to justify the town

For three days past, wit that might warrant be

For the whole city to talk foolishly!’

I cannot say the same of the Southampton, though it stands on classic ground, and is connected by vocal tradition with the great names of the Elizabethan age. What a falling off is here I Our ancestors of that period seem not only to be older by two hundred years, and proportionably wiser and wittier than we, but hardly a trace of them is left, not even the memory of what has been. How should I make my friend Mounsey stare, if I were to mention the name of my still better friend, old honest Signor Friscobaldo, the father of Bellafront; — yet his name was perhaps invented, and the scenes in which he figures unrivalled might for the first time have been read aloud to thrilling ears on this very spot! Who reads Decker now? Or if by chance any one awakes the strings of that ancient lyre, and starts with delight as they yield wild, broken music, is he not accused of envy to the living Muse? What would a linen-draper from Holborn think, if I were to ask him after the clerk of St. Andrew’s, the immortal, the forgotten Webster? His name and his works are no more heard of: though these were written with a pen of adamant, ‘within the red-leaved tables of the heart,’ his fame was ‘writ in water.’ So perishable is genius, so swift is time, so fluctuating is knowledge, and so far is it from being true that men perpetually accumulate the means of improvement and refinement. On the contrary, living knowledge is the tomb of the dead, and while light and worthless materials float on the surface, the solid and sterling as often sink to the bottom, and are swallowed up for ever in weeds and quicksands! — A striking instance of the short-lived nature of popular reputation occurred one evening at the Southampton, when we got into a dispute, the most learned and recondite that over took place, on the comparative merits of Lord Byron and Gray. A country gentleman happened to drop in, and thinking to show off in London company, launched into a lofty panegyric on The Bard of Gray as the sublimest composition in the English language. This assertion presently appeared to be an anachronism, though it was probably the opinion in vogue thirty years ago, when the gentleman was last in town. After a little floundering, one of the party volunteered to express a more contemporary sentiment, by asking in a tone of mingled confidence and doubt —‘But you don’t think, sir, that Gray is to be mentioned as a poet in the same day with my Lord Byron?’ The disputants were now at issue: all that resulted was that Gray was set aside as a poet who would not go down among readers of the present day, and his patron treated the works of the Noble Bard as mere ephemeral effusions, and spoke of poets that would be admired thirty years hence, which was the farthest stretch of his critical imagination. His antagonist’s did not even reach so far. This was the most romantic digression we over had; and the subject was not afterwards resumed. — No one here (generally speaking) has the slightest notion of anything that has happened, that has been said, thought, or done out of his own recollection. It would be in vain to hearken after those ‘wit-skirmishes,’ those ‘brave sublunary things’ which were the employment and delight of the Beaumonts and Bens of former times: but we may happily repose on dulness, drift with the tide of nonsense, and gain an agreeable vertigo by lending an ear to endless controversies. The confusion, provided you do not mingle in the fray and try to disentangle it, is amusing and edifying enough. Every species of false wit and spurious argument may be learnt here by potent examples. Whatever observations you hear dropt have been picked up in the same place or in a kindred atmosphere. There is a kind of conversation made up entirely of scraps and hearsay, as there are a kind of books made up entirely of references to other books. This may account for the frequent contradictions which abound in the discourse of persons educated and disciplined wholly in coffee-houses. There is nothing stable or well-grounded in it: it is ‘nothing but vanity, chaotic vanity.’ They hear a remark at the Globe which they do not know what to make of; another at the Rainbow in direct opposition to it; and not having time to reconcile them, vent both at the Mitre. In the course of half an hour, if they are not more than ordinarily dull, you are sure to find them on opposite sides of the question. This is the sickening part of it. People do not seem to talk for the sake of expressing their opinions, but to maintain an opinion for the sake of talking. We meet neither with modest ignorance nor studious acquirement. Their knowledge has been taken in too much by snatches to digest properly. There is neither sincerity nor system in what they say. They hazard the first crude notion that comes to hand, and then defend it how they can; which is for the most part but ill. ‘Don’t you think,’ says Mounsey, ‘that Mr. ——— is a very sensible, well-informed man?’ ‘Why, no,’ I say, ‘he seems to me to have no ideas of his own, and only to wait to see what others will say in order to set himself against it. I should not think that is the way to get at the truth. I do not desire to be driven out of my conclusions (such as they are) merely to make way for his upstart pretensions.’—‘Then there is ———: what of him?’ ‘He might very well express all he has to say in half the time, and with half the trouble. Why should he beat about the bush as he does? He appears to be getting up a little speech and practising on a smaller scale for a Debating Society — the lowest ambition a man can have. Besides, by his manner of drawling out his words, and interlarding his periods with innuendos and formal reservations, he is evidently making up his mind all the time which side he shall take. He puts his sentences together as printers set up types, letter by letter. There is certainly no principle of short-hand in his mode of elocution. He goes round for a meaning, and the sense waits for him. It is not conversation, but rehearsing a part. Men of education and men of the world order this matter better. They know what they have to say on a subject, and come to the point at once. Your coffee-house politician balances between what he heard last and what he shall say next; and not seeing his way clearly, puts you off with circumstantial phrases, and tries to gain time for fear of making a false step. This gentleman has heard some one admired for precision and copiousness of language; and goes away, congratulating himself that he has not made a blunder in grammar or in rhetoric the whole evening. He is a theoretical Quidnunc— is tenacious in argument, though wary; carries his point thus and thus, bandies objections and answers with uneasy pleasantry, and when he has the worst of the dispute, puns very emphatically on his adversary’s name, if it admits of that kind of misconstruction.’ George Kirkpatrick is admired by the waiter, who is a sleek hand,61 for his temper in managing an argument. Any one else would perceive that the latent cause is not patience with his antagonist, but satisfaction with himself. I think this unmoved self-complacency, this cavalier, smooth, simpering indifference is more annoying than the extremest violence or irritability. The one shows that your opponent does care something about you, and may be put out of his way by your remarks; the other seems to announce that nothing you say can shake his opinion a jot, that he has considered the whole of what you have to offer beforehand, and that he is in all respects much wiser and more accomplished than you. Such persons talk to grown people with the same air of patronage and condescension that they do to children. ‘They will explain’— is a familiar expression with them, thinking you can only differ from them in consequence of misconceiving what they say. Or if you detect them in any error in point of fact (as to acknowledged deficiency in wit or argument, they would smile at the idea), they add some correction to your correction, and thus have the whip-hand of you again, being more correct than you who corrected them. If you hint some obvious oversight, they know what you are going to say, and were aware of the objection before you uttered it:—‘So shall their anticipation prevent your discovery.’ By being in the right you gain no advantage: by being in the wrong you are entitled to the benefit of their pity or scorn. It is sometimes curious to see a select group of our little Gotham getting about a knotty point that will bear a wager, as whether Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary was originally published in quarto or folio. The confident assertions, the cautious overtures, the length of time demanded to ascertain the fact, the precise terms of the forfeit, the provisos for getting out of paying it at last, lead to a long and inextricable discussion. George Kirkpatrick was, however, so convinced in his own mind that the Mourning Bride was written by Shakespear, that he ran headlong into the snare: the bet was decided, and the punch was drunk. He has skill in numbers, and seldom exceeds his sevenpence. — He had a brother once, no Michael Cassio, no great arithmetician. Roger Kirkpatrick was a rare fellow, of the driest humour, and the nicest tact, of infinite sleights and evasions, of a picked phraseology, and the very soul of mimicry. I fancy I have some insight into physiognomy myself, but he could often expound to me at a single glance the characters of those of my acquaintance that I had been most at fault about. The account as it was cast up and balanced between us was not always very favourable. How finely, how truly, how gaily he took off the company at the Southampton! Poor and faint are my sketches compared to his! It was like looking into a camera obscura— you saw faces shining and speaking — the smoke curled, the lights dazzled, the oak wainscotting took a higher polish — there was old Sarratt, tall and gaunt, with his couplet from Pope and case at Nisi Prius, Mounsey eyeing the ventilator and lying perdu for a moral, and Hume and Ayrton taking another friendly finishing glass! — These and many more windfalls of character he gave us in thought, word, and action. I remember his once describing three different persons together to myself and Martin Burney, viz. the manager of a country theatre, a tragic and a comic performer, till we were ready to tumble on the floor with laughing at the oddity of their humours, and at Roger’s extraordinary powers of ventriloquism, bodily and mental; and Burney said (such was the vividness of the scene) that when he awoke the next morning, he wondered what three amusing characters he had been in company with the evening before. Oh! it was a rich treat to see him describe Mudford, him of the Courier, the Contemplative Man, who wrote an answer to Coelebs, coming into a room, folding up his greatcoat, taking out a little pocket volume, laying it down to think, rubbing the calf of his leg with grave self-complacency, and starting out of his reverie when spoken to with an inimitable vapid exclamation of ‘Eh!’ Mudford is like a man made of fleecy hosiery: Roger was lank and lean ‘as is the ribbed sea-sand.’ Yet he seemed the very man he represented, as fat, pert, and dull as it was possible to be. I have not seen him of late:—

For Kais is fled, and our tents are forlorn.

But I thought of him the other day, when the news of the death of Buonaparte came, whom we both loved for precisely contrary reasons, he for putting down the rabble of the people, and I because he had put down the rabble of kings. Perhaps this event may rouse him from his lurking-place, where he lies like Reynard, ‘with head declined, in feigned slumbers!’62

I had almost forgotten the Southampton Tavern. We for some time took C—— for a lawyer, from a certain arguteness of voice and slenderness of neck, and from his having a quibble and a laugh at himself always ready. On inquiry, however, he was found to be a patent-medicine seller, and having leisure in his apprenticeship, and a forwardness of parts, he had taken to study Blackstone and the Statutes at Large. On appealing to Mounsey for his opinion on this matter, he observed pithily, ‘I don’t like so much law: the gentlemen here seem fond of law, but I have law enough at chambers.’ One sees a great deal of the humours and tempers of men in a place of this sort, and may almost gather their opinions from their characters. There is C——a fellow that is always in the wrong — who puts might for right on all occasions — a Tory in grain — who has no one idea but what has been instilled into him by custom and authority — an everlasting babbler on the stronger side of the question — querulous and dictatorial, and with a peevish whine in his voice like a beaten schoolboy. He is a great advocate for the Bourbons and for the National Debt. The former he affirms to be the choice of the French people, and the latter he insists is necessary to the salvation of these kingdoms. This last point a little inoffensive gentleman among us, of a saturnine aspect but simple conceptions, cannot comprehend. ‘I will tell you, sir — I will make my propositions so clear that you will be convinced of the truth of my observation in a moment. Consider, sir, the number of trades that would be thrown out of employ if it were done away with: what would become of the porcelain manufacture without it?’ Any stranger to overhear one of these debates would swear that the English as a nation are bad logicians. Mood and figure are unknown to them. They do not argue by the book. They arrive at conclusions through the force of prejudice, and on the principles of contradiction. Mr. C—— having thus triumphed in argument, offers a flower to the notice of the company as a specimen of his flower-garden, a curious exotic, nothing like it to be found in this kingdom; talks of his carnations, of his country-house, and old English hospitality, but never invites any of his friends to come down and take their Sunday’s dinner with him. He is mean and ostentatious at the same time, insolent and servile, does not know whether to treat those he converses with as if they were his porters or his customers: the prentice-boy is not yet wiped out of him, and his imagination still hovers between his mansion at ——— and the workhouse. Opposed to him and to every one else is B., a radical reformer and logician, who makes clear work of the taxes and National Debt, reconstructs the Government from the first principles of things, shatters the Holy Alliance at a blow, grinds out the future prospects of society with a machine, and is setting out afresh with the commencement of the French Revolution five and twenty years ago, as if on an untried experiment. He minds nothing but the formal agreement of his premises and his conclusions, and does not stick at obstacles in the way, nor consequences in the end. If there was but one side of a question, he would be always in the right. He casts up one column of the account to admiration, but totally forgets and rejects the other. His ideas lie like square pieces of wood in his brain, and may be said to be piled up on a stiff architectural principle, perpendicularly, and at right angles. There is no inflection, no modification, no graceful embellishment, no Corinthian capitals. I never heard him agree to two propositions together, or to more than half a one at a time. His rigid love of truth bends to nothing but his habitual love of disputation. He puts one in mind of one of those long-headed politicians and frequenters of coffee-houses mentioned in Berkeley’s Minute Philosopher, who would make nothing of such old-fashioned fellows as Plato and Aristotle. He has the new light strong upon him, and he knocks other people down with its solid beams. He denies that he has got certain views out of Cobbett, though he allows that there are excellent ideas occasionally to be met with in that writer. It is a pity that this enthusiastic and unqualified regard to truth should be accompanied with an equal exactness of expenditure and unrelenting eye to the main chance. He brings a bunch of radishes with him for cheapness, and gives a band of musicians at the door a penny, observing that he likes their performance better than all the Opera squalling. This brings the severity of his political principles into question, if not into contempt. He would abolish the National Debt from motives of personal economy, and objects to Mr. Canning’s pension because it perhaps takes a farthing a year out of his own pocket. A great deal of radical reasoning has its source in this feeling. — He bestows no small quantity of his tediousness upon Mounsey, on whose mind all these formulas and diagrams fall like seed on stony ground: ‘while the manna is descending,’ he shakes his ears, and, in the intervals of the debate, insinuates an objection, and calls for another half-pint. I have sometimes said to him, ‘Any one to come in here without knowing you, would take you for the most disputatious man alive, for you are always engaged in an argument with somebody or other.’ The truth is, that Mounsey is a good-natured, gentlemanly man, who notwithstanding, if appealed to, will not let an absurd or unjust proposition pass without expressing his dissent; and therefore he is a sort of mark for all those (and we have several of that stamp) who like to tease other people’s understandings as wool-combers tease wool. He is certainly the flower of the flock. He is the oldest frequenter of the place, the latest sitter-up, well-informed, inobtrusive, and that sturdy old English character, a lover of truth and justice. I never knew Mounsey approve of anything unfair or illiberal. There is a candour and uprightness about his mind which can neither be wheedled nor browbeat into unjustifiable complaisance. He looks straight forward as he sits with his glass in his hand, turning neither to the right nor the left, and I will venture to say that he has never had a sinister object in view through life. Mrs. Battle (it is recorded in her Opinions on Whist) could not make up her mind to use the word ‘Go.’ Mounsey, from long practice, has got over this difficulty, and uses it incessantly. It is no matter what adjunct follows in the train of this despised monosyllable — whatever liquid comes after this prefix is welcome. Mounsey, without being the most communicative, is the most conversible man I know. The social principle is inseparable from his person. If he has nothing to say, he drinks your health; and when you cannot, from the rapidity and carelessness of his utterance, catch what he says, you assent to it with equal confidence: you know his meaning is good. His favourite phrase is, ‘We have all of us something of the coxcomb’; and yet he has none of it himself. Before I had exchanged half a dozen sentences with Mounsey, I found that he knew several of my old acquaintance (an immediate introduction of itself, for the discussing the characters and foibles of common friends is a great sweetener and cement of friendship)— and had been intimate with most of the wits and men about town for the last twenty years. He knew Tobin, Wordsworth, Porson, Wilson, Paley, Erskine, and many others. He speaks of Paley’s pleasantry and unassuming manners, and describes Porson’s long potations and long quotations formerly at the Cider Cellar in a very lively way. He has doubts, however, as to that sort of learning. On my saying that I had never seen the Greek Professor but once, at the Library of the London Institution, when he was dressed in an old rusty black coat with cobwebs hanging to the skirts of it, and with a large patch of coarse brown paper covering the whole length of his nose, looking for all the world like a drunken carpenter, and talking to one of the proprietors with an air of suavity, approaching to condescension, Mounsey could not help expressing some little uneasiness for the credit of classical literature. ‘I submit, sir, whether common sense is not the principal thing? What is the advantage of genius and learning if they are of no use in the conduct of life?’— Mounsey is one who loves the hours that usher in the morn, when a select few are left in twos and threes like stars before the break of day, and when the discourse and the ale are ‘aye growing better and better.’ Wells, Mounsey, and myself were all that remained one evening. We had sat together several hours without being tired of one another’s company. The conversation turned on the Beauties of Charles the Second’s Court at Windsor, and from thence to Count Grammont, their gallant and gay historian. We took our favourite passages in turn — one preferring that of Killigrew’s country cousin, who, having been resolutely refused by Miss Warminster (one of the Maids of Honour), when he found she had been unexpectedly brought to bed, fell on his knees and thanked God that now she might take compassion on him — another insisting that the Chevalier Hamilton’s assignation with Lady Chesterfield, when she kept him all night shivering in an old out-house, was better. Jacob Hall’s prowess was not forgotten, nor the story of Miss Stuart’s garters. I was getting on in my way with that delicate endroit in which Miss Churchill is first introduced at court and is besieged (as a matter of course) by the Duke of York, who was gallant as well as bigoted on system. His assiduities, however, soon slackened, owing (it is said) to her having a pale, thin face: till one day, as they were riding out hunting together, she fell from her horse, and was taken up almost lifeless. The whole assembled court was thrown by this event into admiration that such a body should belong to such a face63 (so transcendent a pattern was she of the female form), and the Duke was fixed. This, I contended, was striking, affecting, and grand, the sublime of amorous biography, and said I could conceive of nothing finer than the idea of a young person in her situation, who was the object of indifference or scorn from outward appearance, with the proud suppressed consciousness of a Goddess-like symmetry, locked up by ‘fear and niceness, the handmaids of all women,’ from the wonder and worship of mankind. I said so then, and I think so now: my tongue grew wanton in the praise of this passage, and I believe it bore the bell from its competitors. Wells then spoke of Lucius Apuleius and his Golden Ass, which contains the story of Cupid and Psyche, with other matter rich and rare, and went on to the romance of Heliodorus, Theagenes and Chariclea and in it the presiding deities of Love and Wine appear in all their pristine strength, youth, and grace, crowned and worshipped as of yore. The night waned, but our glasses brightened, enriched with the pearls of Grecian story. Our cup-bearer slept in a corner of the room, like another Endymion, in the pale ray of a half-extinguished lamp, and starting up at a fresh summons for a further supply, he swore it was too late, and was inexorable to entreaty. Mounsey sat with his hat on and with a hectic flush in his face while any hope remained, but as soon as we rose to go, he darted out of the room as quick as lightning, determined not to be the last that went. — I said some time after to the waiter, that ‘Mr. Mounsey was no flincher.’ ‘Oh! sir,’ says he, ‘you should have known him formerly, when Mr. Hume and Mr. Ayrton used to be here. Now he is quite another man: he seldom stays later than one or two.’—‘Why, did they keep it up much then?’ ‘Oh! yes; and used to sing catches and all sorts.’—‘What, did Mr. Mounsey sing catches?’ ‘He joined chorus, sir, and was as merry as the best of them. He was always a pleasant gentleman!’— This Hume and Ayrton succumbed in the fight. Ayrton was a dry Scotchman, Hume a good-natured, hearty Englishman. I do not mean that the same character applies to all Scotchmen or to all Englishmen. Hume was of the Pipe–Office (not unfitly appointed), and in his cheerfuller cups would delight to speak of a widow and a bowling-green, that ran in his head to the last. ‘What is the good of talking of those things now?’ said the man of utility. ‘I don’t know,’ replied the other, quaffing another glass of sparkling ale, and with a lambent fire playing in his eye and round his bald forehead —(he had a head that Sir Joshua would have made something bland and genial of)—‘I don’t know, but they were delightful to me at the time, and are still pleasant to talk and think of.’—Such a one, in Touchstone’s phrase, is a natural philosopher; and in nine cases out of ten that sort of philosophy is the best! I could enlarge this sketch, such as it is; but to prose on to the end of the chapter might prove less profitable than tedious.

I like very well to sit in a room where there are people talking on subjects I know nothing of, if I am only allowed to sit silent and as a spectator; but I do not much like to join in the conversation, except with people and on subjects to my taste. Sympathy is necessary to society. To look on, a variety of faces, humours, and opinions is sufficient; to mix with others, agreement as well as variety is indispensable. What makes good society? I answer, in one word, real fellowship. Without a similitude of tastes, acquirements, and pursuits (whatever may be the difference of tempers and characters) there can be no intimacy or even casual intercourse worth the having. What makes the most agreeable party? A number of people with a number of ideas in common, ‘yet so as with a difference’; that is, who can put one or more subjects which they have all studied in the greatest variety of entertaining or useful lights. Or, in other words, a succession of good things said with good-humour, and addressed to the understandings of those who hear them, make the most desirable conversation. Ladies, lovers, beaux, wits, philosophers, the fashionable or the vulgar, are the fittest company for one another. The discourse at Randal’s is the best for boxers; that at Long’s for lords and loungers. I prefer Hunt’s conversation almost to any other person’s, because, with a familiar range of subjects, he colours with a totally new and sparkling light, reflected from his own character. Elia, the grave and witty, says things not to be surpassed in essence; but the manner is more painful and less a relief to my own thoughts. Some one conceived he could not be an excellent companion, because he was seen walking down the side of the Thames, passibus iniquis, after dining at Richmond. The objection was not valid. I will, however, admit that the said Elia is the worst company in the world in bad company, if it be granted me that in good company he is nearly the best that can be. He is one of those of whom it may be said, Tell me your company, and I’ll tell you your manners. He is the creature of sympathy, and makes good whatever opinion you seem to entertain of him. He cannot outgo the apprehensions of the circle, and invariably acts up or down to the point of refinement or vulgarity at which they pitch him. He appears to take a pleasure in exaggerating the prejudice of strangers against him; a pride in confirming the prepossessions of friends. In whatever scale of intellect he is placed, he is as lively or as stupid as the rest can be for their lives. If you think him odd and ridiculous, he becomes more and more so every minute, a la folie, till he is a wonder gazed (at) by all — set him against a good wit and a ready apprehension, and he brightens more and more  —

  Or like a gate of steel

Fronting the sun, receives and renders back

Its figure and its heat.

We had a pleasant party one evening at Procter’s. A young literary bookseller who was present went away delighted with the elegance of the repast, and spoke in raptures of a servant in green livery and a patent lamp. I thought myself that the charm of the evening consisted in some talk about Beaumont and Fletcher and the old poets, in which every one took part or interest, and in a consciousness that we could not pay our host a better compliment than in thus alluding to studies in which he excelled, and in praising authors whom he had imitated with feeling and sweetness! — I should think it may also be laid down as a rule on this subject, that to constitute good company a certain proportion of hearers and speakers is requisite. Coleridge makes good company for this reason. He immediately establishes the principle of the division of labour in this respect wherever he comes. He takes his cue as speaker, and the rest of the party theirs as listeners — a ‘Circa herd’— without any previous arrangement having been gone through. I will just add that there can be no good society without perfect freedom from affectation and constraint. If the unreserved communication of feeling or opinion leads to offensive familiarity, it is not well; but it is no better where the absence of offensive remarks arises only from formality and an assumed respectfulness of manner.

I do not think there is anything deserving the name of society to be found out of London; and that for the two following reasons. First, there is neighbourhood elsewhere, accidental or unavoidable acquaintance: people are thrown together by chance or grow together like trees; but you can pick your society nowhere but in London. The very persons that of all others you would wish to associate with in almost every line of life (or at least of intellectual pursuit) are to be met with there. It is hard if out of a million of people you cannot find half a dozen to your liking. Individuals may seem lost and hid in the size of the place; but in fact, from this very circumstance, you are within two or three miles’ reach of persons that, without it, you would be some hundreds apart from. Secondly, London is the only place in which each individual in company is treated according to his value in company, and to that only. In every other part of the kingdom he carries another character about with him, which supersedes the intellectual or social one. It is known in Manchester or Liverpool what every man in the room is worth in land or money; what are his connections and prospects in life — and this gives a character of servility or arrogance, of mercenaries or impertinence to the whole of provincial intercourse. You laugh not in proportion to a man’s wit, but his wealth; you have to consider not what, but whom you contradict. You speak by the pound, and are heard by the rood. In the metropolis there is neither time nor inclination for these remote calculations. Every man depends on the quantity of sense, wit, or good manners he brings into society for the reception he meets with in it. A Member of Parliament soon finds his level as a commoner: the merchant and manufacturer cannot bring his goods to market here: the great landed proprietor shrinks from being the lord of acres into a pleasant companion or a dull fellow. When a visitor enters or leaves a room, it is not inquired whether he is rich or poor, whether he lives in a garret or a palace, or comes in his own or a hackney coach, but whether he has a good expression of countenance, with an unaffected manner, and whether he is a man of understanding or a blockhead. These are the circumstances by which you make a favourable impression on the company, and by which they estimate you in the abstract. In the country, they consider whether you have a vote at the next election or a place in your gift, and measure the capacity of others to instruct or entertain them by the strength of their pockets and their credit with their banker. Personal merit is at a prodigious discount in the provinces. I like the country very well if I want to enjoy my own company; but London is the only place for equal society, or where a man can say a good thing or express an honest opinion without subjecting himself to being insulted, unless he first lays his purse on the table to back his pretensions to talent or independence of spirit. I speak from experience.64

60 It is not very long ago that I saw two Dissenting Ministers (the Ultima Thud of the sanguine, visionary temperament in politics) stuffing their pipes with dried currant-leaves, calling it Radical Tobacco, lighting it with a lens in the rays of the sun, and at every puff fancying that they undermined the Boroughmongers, as Trim blew up the army opposed to the Allies! They had deceived the Senate. Methinks I see them now, smiling as in scorn of Corruption.

  Dream on, blest pair:

Yet happier if you knew your happiness,

And knew to know no more!

The world of Reform that you dote on, like Berkeley’s material world, lives only in your own brain, and long may it live there! Those same Dissenting Ministers throughout the country (I mean the descendants of the old Puritans) are to this hour a sort of Fifth-monarchy men: very turbulent fellows, in my opinion altogether incorrigible, and according to the suggestions of others, should be hanged out of the way without judge or jury for the safety of church and state. Marry, hang them! they may be left to die a natural death: the race is nearly extinct of itself, and can do little more good or harm!

61 William, our waiter, is dressed neatly in black, takes in the TICKLER (which many of the gentlemen like to look into), wears, I am told, a diamond pin in his shirt-collar, has a music-master to teach him to play on the flageolet two hours before the maids are up, complains of confinement and a delicate constitution, and is a complete Master Stephen in his way.

62 His account of Dr. Whittle was prodigious-of his occult sagacity, of his eyes prominent and wild like a hare’s, fugacious of followers, of the arts by which he had left the City to lure the patients that he wanted after him to the West End, of the ounce of tea that he purchased by stratagem as an unusual treat to his guest, and of the narrow winding staircase, from the height of which he contemplated in security the imaginary approach of duns. He was a large, plain, fair-faced Moravian preacher, turned physician. He was an honest man, but vain of he knew not what. He was once sitting where Sarratt was playing a game at chess without seeing the board; and after remaining for some time absorbed in silent wonder, he turned suddenly to me and said, ‘Do you know, Mr. Hazlitt, that I think there is something I could do?’ ‘Well, what is that?’ ‘Why, perhaps you would not guess, but I think I could dance, I’m sure I could; ay, I could dance like Vestris!’ Sarratt, who was a man of various accomplishments (among others one of the Fancy), afterwards bared his arm to convince us of his muscular strength, and Mrs. Sarratt going out of the room with another lady said, ‘Do you know, Madam, the Doctor is a great jumper!’ Moliere could not outdo this. Never shall I forget his pulling off his coat to eat beef-steaks on equal terms with Martin Burney. Life is short, but full of mirth and pastime, did we not so soon forget what we have laughed at, perhaps that we may not remember what we have cried at! Sarratt, the chess-player, was an extraordinary man. He had the same tenacious, epileptic faculty in other things that he had at chess, and could no more get any other ideas out of his mind than he could those of the figures on the board. He was a great reader, but had not the least taste. Indeed the violence of his memory tyrannised over and destroyed all power of selection. He could repeat (all) Ossian by heart, without knowing the best passage from the worst; and did not perceive he was tiring you to death by giving an account of the breed, education, and manners of fighting-dogs for hours together. The sense of reality quite superseded the distinction between the pleasurable and the painful. He was altogether a mechanical philosopher.

63 Ils ne pouvoient croire qu’un corps de cette beaute fut de quelque chose au visage de Mademoiselle Churchill.’—Memoires de Grammont, vol. ii. p. 254.

64 When I was young I spent a good deal of my time at Manchester and Liverpool; and I confess I give the preference to the former. There you were oppressed only by the aristocracy of wealth; in the latter by the aristocracy of wealth and letters by turns. You could not help feeling that some of their great men were authors among merchants and merchants among authors. Their bread was buttered on both sides, and they had you at a disadvantage either way. The Manchester cotton-spinners, on the contrary, set up no pretensions beyond their looms, were hearty good fellows, and took any information or display of ingenuity on other subjects in good part. I remember well being introduced to a distinguished patron of art and rising merit at a little distance from Liverpool, and was received with every mark of attention and politeness; till, the conversation turning on Italian literature, our host remarked that there was nothing in the English language corresponding to the severity of the Italian ode — except perhaps Dryden’s Alexander’s Feast and Pope’s St. Cecilia! I could no longer contain my desire to display my smattering in criticism, and began to maintain that Pope’s Ode was, as it appeared to me, far from an example of severity in writing. I soon perceived what I had done, but here am I writing Table-talks in consequence. Alas! I knew as little of the world then as I do now. I never could understand anything beyond an abstract definition.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 21:19