29 SEPTEMBER 1906, Page 10


THAT part of literature which may be generally described as table-talk is by no means the least significant, as it is assuredly one of the most interesting. We include under the head not only the works definitely entitled "Table-Talk," such as Luther's, Selden's, Coleridge's—all three particularly rich—but all authentic recorded conversations, such as the " Memorabilia " of Xenophon, the more familiar and personal part of two or three of the Platonic "Dialogues," Goethe's "Conversations with Eckermann," Boswell's "Life of John- son," and the recorded conversations of Carlyle. One would willingly exchange not a few of the solid and respectable books of the world for any one of these. Nay, we are not sure but that a work of real genius or profound learning might not rather be missed from the vast library of mankind than the pregnant sayings of Coleridge or the genial wisdom of "Eckermann," or the angry prophecies of Carlyle. Few read the " Rambler " nowadays, but we delight again and again in those strong, terse, sinewy sayings uttered by that half-blind, rugged old figure in grey clothes and brown wig while he was having "his talk out" at ` Cock ' or ` Mitre ' with his Scotch friend and biographer.

The reason for this love of table-talk seems to us quite clear. It is the natural inclination of the mind for direct, primal relations with strong and great natures. Even the most spontaneous of writers, the most genuine of poets, the most popular of novelists, fails to approach quite as close. to us as the ready and sincere talker. It is true that there are professional conversationalists, who pose and talk for effect, as there are also talkers who, like Macaulay, without in any way posing, simply shout you down by their command of an inexhaustible supply of facts, and without thinking very deeply about them. But the writer, however sincere he may be, always, as a writer, poses to some degree. As Browning says of the greatest of all writers, if Shakespeare unlocked his heart in his sonnets, the less Shakespeare he. It is a beauti- ful dream to conceive of a poet stretching himself on a bank of violets, with a purling brook flowing at his feet, and the skylarks singing overhead, and creating half-a-dozen sonnets as easily and smoothly as a boy slides over a frozen pond. But unfortunately we possess not a few poets' manuscripts, and we know that poems are not produced that way. A work of genius may be as " inevitable " as you will, and yet there is a deliberate strain in it, a consciousness that the author is setting about a piece of work on which judgment is to be passed, and which as an artistic product is to be challenged. The result is that no human work which is to get itself published and meet the gaze of a critical world (unless, perhaps, we except some of the deeper, heartfelt works of introspective religious literature) is ever quite spontaneous. The author considers not only what he shall say, but how he shall say it ; and in thinking over this be must remember that in. his wide constituency there are varieties and degrees of mental power to all of which he must address himself, and which, therefore, compel deliberate choice and selection. These thoughts disturb the native, simple utterance which we may suppose characterised archaic poetry, and compel, even in the lightest literature, a certain reflective and artificial vein in the author. But from this element t'he literary talker is free. His audience is before him; he has no time for posing, no occasion for the more deliberate arts of composition; he speaks "as a man with his friend" If it is literally" table" talk; the good dishes and the generous wine have imparted a genial glow to his nature which reflects 'itself in the sayings or 'arguments to which he gives utterance. Some of the most forcible Of those pithy sentences of Johnton were uttered after the beef-steak and kidney pudding was removed, and certain it is that some of the most profound arguments of Socrates were delivered after he had drank enough wine to send most of his companions under the table. Neither Goethe nor Coleridge was a great eater or drinker, and powerful as their talk is, profoundly wise and spiritually stimulating, we do not get quite so near to either as we do to Johnson. But Luther again, who avowed his love for "woman, wine, and song," and whose strong nature rested On a great basis of animalism,—we come to close quarters with him in his table-talk, and feel his fierce and steady pulse beat. In general, we may say that this direct, simple utterance of author, not to reader, but to hearer, is the most honest and human element in literature.

Were it omitted, what treasures we should lose ! How much poorer life would become ! How stilted and artificial, comparatively speaking, the records of mankind would be ! Consider the wonderful collection of books we call the Bible, and remember how much of them is conversation and the direct, simple, unpremeditated appeal of heart to heart. The parables and teachings of our Lord are parts of recorded conversations, the confidential talk. of friends. The stories of Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, Ruth,—how largely conversational they are, how easy the flow, 'how clear the outline, how these simple, pregnant sayings stick in the memory! So with that great collection of narratives of the ancient world,—Plutarch's "Lives." One could live for a good while on a desert 'island very contentedly with that book; so one could with "Boswell" or " Eckermann." And it is so because we feel the human heart-beat, we are in a familiar intimacy with another mind. We drop in, as it were, while the author is lounging over the fire, instead of visiting him on occasions of ceremony when he has his frills and ruffles on, and when we feel a little abashed by the stateliness of the scene. In addition to the closeness of intercourse, how often does some sudden flash in conversation light up a subject more than pages of learned argument. One has occasionally in .one's life had the sudden inspiration to say something, one has had the good fortune to hear something said, on a particular theme, which was final; you felt that you could never find anything so good or read anything so witty, and that for you the matter in question was settled once for all. This is not true merely of men of genius or culture; perhaps it is even more true of ordinary men. The "inevitable" verdict is often heard in a sentence, rough in form but pregnant in meaning, from a white-haired labourer at an alehouse fireside, or from the untutored " gods " in the gallery, or even from that inconvenient "voice" at a Political meeting. It is the simple, direct mind at work, telling you what it thinks. There is no posing, no elabora- tion, no preparation, the judgment comes out plump, and Wisdom is justified of her children.

- While the writer can only call up an imaginary audience who will possibly listen to what he has to say, the talker has his audience before him, a living flesh-and-blood reality. He has to meet it on the spot, he has to -satisfy its reason, to calm its prejudices, to captivate its affections, and all by instantaneous expression,—which tends to generate in him an epigrammatic force which we look for rarely in very elaborated literature. The table-talker is not so much a teacher speaking as cathedra as one of a society of equals, stimulated to his best by the sharp thrust and parry of nimble minds. For it is impossible for a speaker to show his powers in an environment of the commonplace; he is rendered cold and dumb. He must receive from his audience that generous Cut-rent of intellectual force which relates them and him ; for good talking is the outcome of the subtle interaction of mind and soul. In the case of the elaborate writer it is different, for he is usually in vacuo, a lone figure, wondering, as Carlyle wondered of his "French Revolution," what the world will say to the child of his brain. But the talker has the epitome of the world befere him, he goes straight to its heart, wrestles with its conscience and intellect, and has not to wait for its verdict. "As iron sharpeneth iron, so doth a man the face of his friend."