The Bas Bleu: or, Conversation (1786)
VESEY, of Verse the judge and friend,
Awhile my idle strain attend:
Not with the days of early Greece,
I mean to ope my slender piece;
The rare Symposium to proclaim
Which crown'd th' Athenians' social name;
Or how Aspasia's parties shone,
The first Bas-bleu at Athens known;
Where SOCRATES unbending sat,
With ALCIBIADES in chat;
And PERICLES vouchsafed to mix
Taste, wit, and mirth, with politics.
Nor need I stop my tale to show,
At least to readers such as you,
How all that Rome esteem'd polite,
Supp'd with LUCULLUS every night;
LUCULLUS, who, from Pontus come,
Brought conquests, and brought cherries home.
Name but the suppers in th' Appollo,
What classic images will follow!
How wit flew round, while each might take
Conchylia from the Lucrine lake;
And Attic Salt, and Garum Sauce,
And Lettuce from the Isle of Cos;
The first and last from Greece transplanted,
Us'd here--because the rhyme I wanted:
How pheasant's heads, with cost collected,
And Phenicopters' stood neglected,
To laugh at SCIPIO's lucky hit,
POMPEY's bon-mot, or CAESAR's wit!
Intemperance, list'ning to the tale,
Forgot the Mullet growing stale;
And Admiration, balanc'd, hung
'Twixt PEACOCKS' brains, and TULLY's tongue.
I shall not stop to dwell on these,
But be as epic as I please,
And plunge at once in medias res.
To prove that privilege I plead,
I'll quote some Greek I cannot read;
Stunn'd by Authority you yield,
And I, not reason, keep the field.
Long was Society o'er-run
By Whist, that desolating Hun;
Long did Quadrille despotic sit,
That Vandal of colloquial wit;
And Conversation's setting light
Lay half-obscur'd in Gothic night.
At length the mental shades decline,
Colloquial wit begins to shine;
Genius prevails, and Conversation
Emerges into Reformation.
The vanquish'd triple crown to you,
BOSCAWEN sage, bright MONTAGU,
Divided, fell;--your cares in haste
Rescued the ravag'd realms of Taste;
And LYTTLETON's accomplish'd name,
And witty PULTENEY shar'd the fame;
The Men not bound by pedant rules
Nor Ladies Precieuses ridicules;*
For polish'd WALPOLE show'd the way,
How wits may be both learn'd and gay;
And CARTER taught the female train,
The deeply wise are never vain;
And she who SHAKSPEARE's wrongs redrest,
Prov'd that the brightest are the best.
This just deduction still they drew,
And well they practis'd what they knew;
Nor taste, nor wit, deserves applause,
Unless still true to critic laws;
Good sense, of faculties the best,
Inspire and regulate the rest.
Oh! how unlike the wit that fell,
RAMBOUILLET! at thy quaint Hotel;
Where point, and turn, and equivoque,
Distorted every word they spoke!
All so intolerably bright,
Plain Common Sense was put to flight;
Each speaker, so ingenious ever,
'Twas tiresome to be quite so clever;
There twisted Wit forgot to please,
And Mood and Figure banish'd ease:
No votive altar smok'd to thee,
Chaste Queen, divine Simplicity!
But forc'd Conceit, which ever fails,
And, stff Antithesis prevails;
Uneasy rivalry destroys
Society's unlabour'd joys:
NATURE, of stilts and fetters tir'd,
Impatient from the Wits retir'd;
Long time the Exile houseless stray'd,
Till SEVIGNE receiv'd the maid.
Though here she comes to bless our isle,
Not universal is her smile.
Muse! snatch the Lyre which CAMBRIDGE strung,
When he the empty ballroom sung;
'Tis tun'd above thy pitch, I doubt,
And thou no music wouldst draw out:
Yet, in a lower note, presume
To sing the full dull Drawing-room.
Where the dire Circle keeps its station,
Each common phrase is an oration;
And cracking fans, and whisp'ring Misses,
Compose their Conversation blisses.
The matron marks the goodly show,
While the tall daughter eyes the Beau--
The frigid Beau! Ah! luckless fair,
'Tis not for you that studied air;
Ah! not for you that sidelong glance,
And all that charming nonchalance;
Ah! not for you the three long hours
He worshipp'd the Cosmetic powers;
That finish'd head which breathes perfume,
And kills the nerves of half the room;
And all the murders meant to lie
in that large, languishing, grey eye;
Desist:--less wild th' attempt would be,
To warm the snows of Rhodope:
Too cold to feel, too proud to feign,
For him you're wise and fair in vain;
In vain to charm him you intend,
Self is his object, aim, and end.
Chill shade of that affected Peer,
Who dreaded Mirth, come safely here!
For here no vulgar joy effaces
Thy rage for polish, ton, and graces.
Cold Ceremony's leaden hand
Waves o'er the room her poppy wand;
Arrives the stranger; every guest
Conspires to torture the distrest;
At once they rise--so have I seen--
You guess the simile I mean,
Take what comparison you please,
The crowded streets, the swarming bees,
The pebbles on the shores that lie,
The stars which form the galaxy;
These serve t' embellish what is said,
And show, besides, that one has read;--
At once they rise--th' astonish'd guest
Back in a corner slinks, distrest;
Scar'd at the many bowing round,
And shock'd at her own voice's sound,
Forgot the thing she meant to say,
Her words, half-utter'd, die away;
In sweet oblivion down she sinks,
And of her next appointment thinks.
While her loud neighbour on the right,
Boasts what she has to do to-night;
So very much, you'd swear her pride is
To match the labours of ALCIDES;
'Tis true, in hyperbolic measure,
She nobly calls her labours Pleasure;
In this unlike ALCMENA's son,
She never means they should be done;
Her fancy of no limits dreams,
No ne plus ultra stops her schemes;
Twelve! she'd have scorn'd the paltry round,
No Pillars would have marked her bound;
CALPE and ABYLA, in vain
Had nodded cross th' opposing main;
A circumnavigator she
On Ton's illimitable sea.
We pass the pleasures vast and various.
Of Routs, not social, but gregarious;
Where high heroic self-denial
Sustains her self-inflicted trial.
Day lab'rors! what an easy life,
To feed ten children and a wife!
No--I my juster pity spare
To the night lab'rer's keener care;
And, pleas'd, to gentler scenes retreat,
Where Conversation holds her seat.
Small were that art which would ensure
The Circle's boasted quadrature!
See VESEY's plastic genius make
A Circle every figure take;
Nay, shapes and forms, which would defy
All science of Geometry;
Isoceles, and Parallel,
Names, hard to speak, and hard to spell!
Th' enchantress wav'd her wand, and spoke!
Her potent wand the Circle broke:
The social Spirits hover round,
And bless the liberated ground.
Ask you what charms this gift dispense?
'Tis the strong spell of COMMON SENSE.
Away dull Ceremony flew,
And with her bore Detraction too.
Nor only Geometric Art,
Does this presiding power impart;
But Chemists too, who want the essence,
Which makes or mars all coalescence,
Of her the secret rare might get,
How different kinds amalgamate:
And he, who wilder studies chose,
Find here a new metempsychose;
How forms can other forms assume,
Within her Pythagoric room;
Or be, and stranger is th' event,
The very things which nature meant;
Nor strive, by art and affectation,
To cross their genuine destination.
Here sober Duchesses are seen,
Chaste Wits, and Critics void of spleen;.
Physicians, fraught with real science,
And Whigs and Tories in alliance;
Poets, fulfilling Christian duties,
Just Lawyers, reasonable Beauties;
Bishops who preach, and Peers who pay,
And Countesses who seldom play;
Learn'd Antiquaries, who, from college,
Reject the rust, and bring the knowledge;
And, hear it, age, believe it, youth,
Polemics, really seeking truth;
And Travellers of that rare tribe,
Who've seen the countries they describe;
Who study'd there, so strange their plan,
Not plants, nor herbs alone, but man;
While Travellers, of other notions,
Scale mountain-tops, and traverse oceans;
As if, so much these themes engross,
The study of mankind--was Moss.
Ladies who point, nor think me partial,
An Epigram as well as MARTIAL;
Yet in all female worth succeed,
As well as those who cannot read.
Right pleasant were the task, I ween,
To name the groupes which fill the scene;
But Rhyme's of such fastidious nature,
She proudly scorns all Nomenclature,
Nor grace our Northern names her lips,
Like HOMER's Catalogue of Ships.
Once--faithful Memory! heave a sigh,
Here ROSCIUS gladden'd every eye.
Why comes not MARO? Far from town,
He rears the Urn to Taste, and BROWN;
Plants Cypress round the Tomb of GRAY,
Or decks his English Garden gay;
Whose mingled sweets exhale perfume,
And promise a perennial bloom.
Here, rigid CATO*, awful Sage!
Bold Censor of a thoughtless age,
Once dealt his pointed moral round,
And, not unheeded, fell the sound;
The Muse his honour'd memory weeps,
For CATO now with ROSCIUS sleeps!
Here once HORTENSIUS* lov'd to sit,
Apostate now from social Wit:
Ah! why in wrangling senates waste
The noblest parts, the happiest taste?
Why Democratic Thunders wield,
And quit the Muse's calmer field?
Taste thou the gentler joys they give,
With HORACE, and with LELIUS live.*
Hail, CONVERSATION, soothing Power,
Sweet Goddess of the social hour!
Not with more heart-felt warmth, at least,
Does LELIUS bend, thy true High Priest;
Than I the lowest of thy train,
These field-flowers bring to deck thy fane;
Who to thy shrine like him can haste,
With warmer zeal, or purer taste?
O may thy worship long prevail,
And thy true votaries never fail!
Long may thy polish'd altars blaze
With wax-lights' undiminish'd rays!
Still be thy nightly offerings paid,
Libations large of Lemonade.
On silver vases, loaded, rise
The biscuits' ample sacrifice.
Nor be the milk-white streams forgot
Of thirst-assuaging, cool orgeat;
Rise, incense pure from fragrant Tea,
Delicious incense, worthy Thee!
Hail, Conversation, heav'nly fair,
Thou bliss of life, and balm of care,
Still may thy gentle reign extend,
And taste with wit and science blend!
Soft polisher of rugged man,
Refiner of the social plan;
For thee, best solace of his toil,
The sage consumes his midnight oil;
And keeps late vigils to produce
Materials for thy future use;
Calls forth the else neglected knowledge,
Of school, of travel, and of college.
If none behold, ah! wherefore fair?
Ah! wherefore wise, if none must hear?
Our intellectual ore must shine,
Not slumber idly in the mine.
Let education's moral mint
The noblest images imprint;
Let taste her curious touchstone hold,
To try if standard be the gold;
But 'tis thy commerce, Conversation,
Must give it use by circulation;
That noblest commerce of mankind,
Whose precious merchandize is MIND!
What stoic traveller would try
A sterile soil, and parching sky,
Or dare th' intemperate Northern zone,
If what he saw must ne'er be known?
For this he bids his home farewell;
The joy of seeing is to tell.
Trust me, he never would have stirr'd,
Were he forbid to speak a word;
And Curiosity would sleep,
If her own secrets she must keep
The bliss of telling what is past
Becomes her rich reward at last.
Who'd mock at death, at danger smile,
To steal one peep at Father Nile;
Who, at Palmira, risk his neck,
Or search the ruins of Balbec
If these must hide old Nilus' fount,
Nor Lybian tales at home recount;
If those must sink their learned labour,
Nor with their ruins treat a neighbour?
Range--study--think do all we can
Colloquial pleasures are for man.
Yet not from low desire to shine
Does Genius toil in learning's mine;
Not to indulge in idle vision,
But strike new light by strong collision.
Of CONVERSATION, wisdom's friend,
This is the object and the end,
Of moral truth, man's proper science,
With sense and learning in alliance,
To search the depths, and thence produce
What tends to practice and to use.
And next in value we shall find
What mends the taste and forms the mind.
If high those truths in estimation,
Whose search is crown'd with demonstration;
To these assign no scanty praise,
Our taste which clear, our views which raise.
For grant that mathematic truth
Best balances the mind of Youth;
Yet scarce the truth of Taste is found
To grow from principles less sound.
O'er books the Mind inactive lies,
Books, the Mind's food, not exercise!
Her vigorous wing she scarcely feels,
'Till use latent strength reveals;
Her slumb'ring energies can't forth,
She springs, she mounts, she feels her worth;
And, at her new-found powers elated,
Thinks them not rous'd, but new created.
Enlighten'd spirits! you, who know
What charms from polish'd converse flow,
Speak, for you can, the pure delight
When kindling sympathies unite;
When correspondent tastes impart
Communion sweet from heart to heart;
You ne'er the cold gradations need
Which vulgar souls to union lead;
No dry discussion to unfold
The meaning caught ere well 'tis told:
In taste, in learning, wit, or science,
Still kindred souls demand alliance;
Each in the other joys to find
The image answering to his mind.
But sparks electric only strike
On souls electrical alike;
The flash of intellect expires,
Unless it meet congenial fires:
The language to th' Elect alone
Is, like the Mason's mystery, known;
In vain th' unerring sign is made
To him who is not of the Trade.
What lively pleasure to divine
The thought implied, the hinted line,
To feel Allusion's artful force,
And trace the image to its source.
Quick Memory blends her scatter'd rays,
'Till Fancy kindles at the blaze;
The works of ages start to view,
And ancient Wit elicits new.
But wit and parts if thus we praise,
What nobler altars should we raise.
Those sacrifices could we see
Which wit, O Virtue! makes to thee.
At once the rising thought to dash,
To quench at once the bursting flash!
The shining mischief to subdue,
And lose the praise and pleasure too!
Though Venus' self, could you detect her,
Imbuing with her richest nectar,
The thought unchaste to check that thought,
To spurn a fame so dearly bought,
This is high Principle's controul!
This is true continence of Soul!
Blush, heroes, at your cheap renown,
A vanquish'd realm, a plunder'd town!
Your conquests were to gain a name,
This conquest triumphs over Fame;
So pure its essence, 'twere destroy'd
If known, and if commended, void.
Amidst the brightest truths believ'd,
Amidst the fairest deeds achiev'd,
Shall stand recorded and admir'd,
That Virtue sunk what Wit inspir'd.
But let the letter'd, and the fair,
And, chiefly, let the WIT beware;
You, whose warm spirits never fail,
Forgive the hint which ends my tale:
O shun the perils which attend
On wit, on warmth, and heed your friend.
Though Science nurs'd you in her bowers,
Though Fancy crown your brow with flowers,
Each thought though bright invention fill,
Though Attic bees each word distil;
Yet, if one gracious power refuse
Her gentle influence to infuse;
If she withhold her magic spell,
Nor in the social circle dwell;
In vain shall listening crowds approve,
They'll praise you, but they will not love.
What is this power you're loth to mention,
This charm, this witchcraft? 'tis ATTENTION:
Mute Angel, yes; thy looks dispense
The silence of intelligence;
Thy graceful form I well discern,
In act to listen and to learn;
'Tis thou for talents shalt obtain
That pardon Wit would hope in vain:
Thy wondrous power, thy secret charm,
Shall Envy of her sting disarm;
Thy silent flattery sooths our spirit,
And we forgive eclipsing merit;
Our jealous souls no longer burn,
Nor hate thee, though thou shine in turn;
The sweet atonement screens the fault,
And love and praise are cheaply bought.
With mild complacency to hear,
Though somewhat long the tale appear,
The dull relation to attend,
Which mars the story you could mend;
'Tis more than wit, 'tis moral beauty,
'Tis pleasure rising out of duty.
Nor vainly think the time you waste,
When temper triumphs over taste.
Taken from Hannah More, Florio: a tale, for fine gentlemen and fine ladies: and, the bas bleu; or, conversation: two poems. Printed for T. Cadell, in the Strand (London), 1786, p. 66-89.
Image: "Breaking Up of the Blue Stocking Club" (1815) by Thomas Rowlandson.