How little real conversation there is to be had ! The chat of ordinary acquaintances, the intimate talk of near friends, discussion and argument on special subjects, — none of these, of course, are, properly speaking, conversation. If the art has apparently declined among us at the present day, is it because we are too frivolous and lazy to furnish our minds with the ideas and sentiments out of the abundance of which the mouth speaketh, or are we too strenuously preoccupied with practical affairs to allow our minds their lighter moods ? No doubt life is not now what it was a century or two ago, in the days of Pope and Bolingbroke, or the days of the Hôtel Rambouillet. A great deal that was said in London coffee-houses or French salons is nowadays addressed to the great public in magazine articles and novels. Art and literature are discussed in certain clubs, but in gatherings where the sexes meet no one expects to go beyond the on dit of society, small talk broken up into minutest fragments. A modern dinner-table, where the guests are not too numerous, seems to afford the best opportunity for that conversation, free, wide-ranging, light, yet not banal, which is assuredly one of the most agreeable of pastimes. It is an enjoyment not dependent to any great degree upon the mutual liking of the interlocutors, provided there is a general harmony of the elements, and each person brings his due share to the entertainment. It is always of far less moment what is said than that it be said agreeably. An unfortunate manner may deprive a person’s words of the consideration they really deserve; as of Fenimore Cooper it is said that his earnestness was often mistaken for violence, since he belonged to that class of persons who appear to be excited when they are only interested. Having most positive convictions of his own, he had not sufficient patience with those who “ embrace their views loosely, hold them half - heartedly, or defend them ignorantly.” He was a man better calculated to be loved by the friends who knew the worth of his true heart than appreciated in general society ; and though this was rather his misfortune than his fault, he had not the right to complain, since it is only by our outside that we can expect the world of our indifferent acquaintance to judge of us.

Though originality in idea and individuality in expression lend piquancy to a man’s talk, yet no one person should predominate. Conversation is not dissertation. When Johnson was setting forth his weighty ex cathedra judgments, some among his circle of deferential auditors may have ventured to think the session a tedious one. It was something more than his learning that charmed into willing silence those who used to gather about the “old man eloquent;” for Coleridge was, after all, more poet than philosopher, and the full flood of his speech was colored with the rainbow hues of imagination.

While the man of real wit or the genuine humorist is to the company as the champagne to the heavier wines at a feast, there is no greater bore than the punster or retailer of inopportune stories, who, for the sake of his sorry joke, will without conscience wreck a whole train of conversation.

The French, with their conversational gift, their quick intelligence, readiness of apprehension, and felicity of expression, amuse themselves over the inaptitude in this respect of their neighbor John Bull. “ Les Anglais,” they say, “ ont une infinité de petits usages de convention pour se dispenser de parler.” Burke, whom Johnson described as the only man whose common conversation corresponded to his general fame, was an Irishman. Burns, who was “ justly proud of his own powers of conversation,” was Scotch. “ To no other man’s have we the same conclusive testimony from different sources,” — from such persons as Robertson the historian, a lady of rank like the Duchess of Gordon, and the servants at the inns, who, if Burns came in late, would “ get out of bed to hear him talk.” Lamb, however, English as he was, must have been even more delightful in his conversation than his writings, the charm of his talk lying, one fancies, in its complete naturalness and ease, and the unexpectedness of his sallies. He referred to himself, no doubt, when he described certain persons as being without system and logic. “Their conversation is accordingly. They will throw out a random word, in and out of season, and be content to let it pass for what it is worth. They cannot always speak as if they were upon their oath, but must be understood, speaking or writing, with some abatement. They seldom wait to mature a proposition, but e’en bring it to market in the green ear.” This slightly apologetic strain is itself only half serious, for Lamb knew as well as another how to ripen his thought to the full harvest when occasion required. He was aware, however, that in the finer and lighter products of literature, and above all in conversation, a great deal depends upon how much can be taken for granted. “ Vulgar chessplayers,” it has been said, “ have to play their game out; nothing short of an actual checkmate satisfies their dull apprehension.”

Novelists often fail to make their characters talk in a way that is at once natural and interesting, because in conversation so much is added to the mere words by the tone, the glance, all that belongs to the speaker’s personality, his temper of mind, present mood and intent. Mr. Mallock has somewhere said, to the same effect, that the magic of conversation depends upon that viewless world of association that is born and dies with each special day and company. The value of what any individual contributes to the conversational feast depends, as we all know, upon manner as well as matter ; and so also depends the individual’s reputation for intelligence or wit. If a certain self-confidence be wanting to a man, he will pass for dull where lesser men are shining lights. If one cares for the opinion of the average world, it is never safe to appear as modest as one may really be ; for “ a confession of partial ignorance is likely to be taken for one of total incapacity by the ordinary man who possesses a partial knowledge, or is capable of assuming what he does not possess.”