Polite Conversation in Three Dialogues, Jonathan Swift
Polite Conversation in Three Dialogues
Jonathan Swift
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Jonathan Swift (30 November 1667 – 19 October 1745) was an Anglo-Irish satirist, essayist, political pamphleteer (first for the Whigs, then for the Tories), poet and Anglican cleric who became Dean of St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, hence his common sobriquet, "Dean Swift". Polite Conversation in Three Dialogues, or A complete collection of genteel and ingenious conversation, according to the most polite mode and method now used at court, and in the best companies of England was published in 1909.

Polite Conversation in Three Dialogues

by
Jonathan Swift


An Introduction to the Following Treatise

As my Life hath been chiefly spent in consulting the Honour and Welfare of my Country for more than Forty Years past, not without answerable Success, if the World and my Friends have not flattered me; so, there is no Point wherein I have so much labour’d, as that of improving and polishing all Parts of Conversation between Persons of Quality, whether they meet by Accident or Invitation, at Meals, Tea, or Visits, Mornings, Noons, or Evenings.

I have passed perhaps more time than any other Man of my Age and Country in Visits and Assemblees, where the polite Persons of both Sexes distinguish themselves; and could not without much Grief observe how frequently both Gentlemen and Ladies are at a Loss for Questions, Answers, Replies and Rejoinders: However, my Concern was much abated, when I found that these Defects were not occasion’d by any Want of Materials, but because those Materials were not in every Hand: For Instance, One Lady can give an Answer better than ask a Question: One Gentleman is happy at a Reply; another excels in a Rejoinder: One can revive a languishing Conversation by a sudden surprizing Sentence; another is more dextrous in seconding; a Third can fill the Gap with laughing, or commending what hath been said: Thus fresh Hints may be started, and the Ball of Discourse kept up.

But, alas! this is too seldom the Case, even in the most select Companies: How often do we see at Court, at public Visiting-Days, at great Men’s Levees, and other Places of general Meeting, that the Conversation falls and drops to nothing, like a Fire without Supply of Fuel; this is what we ought to lament; and against this dangerous Evil I take upon me to affirm, that I have in the following Papers provided an infallible Remedy.

It was in the Year 1695, and the Sixth of his late Majesty King William, the Third, of ever glorious and immortal Memory, who rescued Three Kingdoms from Popery and Slavery; when, being about the Age of Six-and-thirty, my Judgment mature, of good Reputation in the World, and well acquainted with the best Families in Town, I determined to spend Five Mornings, to dine Four times, pass Three Afternoons, and Six Evenings every Week, in the Houses of the most polite Families, of which I would confine myself to Fifty; only changing as the Masters or Ladies died, or left the Town, or grew out of Vogue, or sunk in their Fortunes, (which to me was of the highest moment) or because disaffected to the Government; which Practice I have followed ever since to this very Day; except when I happened to be sick, or in the Spleen upon cloudy Weather; and except when I entertained Four of each Sex at my own Lodgings once a Month, by way of Retaliation.

I always kept a large Table-Book in my Pocket; and as soon as I left the Company, I immediately entered the choicest Expressions that passed during the Visit; which, returning Home, I transcribed in a fair Hand, but somewhat enlarged; and had made the greatest Part of my Collection in Twelve Years, but not digested into any Method; for this I found was a Work of infinite Labour, and what required the nicest Judgment, and consequently could not be brought to any Degree of Perfection in less than Sixteen Years more.

Herein I resolved to exceed the Advice of Horace, a Roman Poet, (which I have read in Mr. Creech’s admirable Translation) That an Author should keep his Works Nine Years in his Closet, before he ventured to publish them; and finding that I still received some additional Flowers of Wit and Language, although in a very small Number, I determined to defer the Publication, to pursue my Design, and exhaust, if possible, the whole Subject, that I might present a complete System to the World: For, I am convinced by long Experience, that the Critics will be as severe as their old Envy against me can make them: I foretel, they will object, that I have inserted many Answers and Replies which are neither witty, humorous, polite, or authentic; and have omitted others, that would have been highly useful, as well as entertaining: But let them come to Particulars, and I will boldly engage to confute their Malice.

For these last Six or Seven Years I have not been able to add above Nine valuable Sentences to inrich my Collection; from whence I conclude, that what remains will amount only to a Trifle: However, if, after the Publication of this Work, any Lady or Gentleman, when they have read it, shall find the least thing of Importance omitted, I desire they will please to supply my Defects, by communicating to me their Discoveries; and their Letters may be directed to Simon Wagstaff, Esq; at his Lodgings next Door to the Gloucester-Head in St. James’s-street, (they paying the Postage). In Return of which Favour, I shall make honourable Mention of their Names in a short Preface to the Second Edition.

In the mean time, I cannot but with some Pride, and much Pleasure, congratulate with my dear Country, which hath outdone all the Nations of Europe in advancing the whole Art of Conversation to the greatest Height it is capable of reaching; and therefore being intirely convinced that the Collection I now offer to the Public is full and complete, I may at the same time boldly affirm, that the whole Genius, Humour, Politeness and Eloquence of England are summed up in it: Nor is the Treasure small, wherein are to be found at least a Thousand shining Questions, Answers, Repartees, Replies and Rejoinders, fitted to adorn every kind of Discourse that an Assemblee of English Ladies and Gentlemen, met together for their mutual Entertainment, can possibly want, especially when the several Flowers shall be set off and improved by the Speakers, with every Circumstance of Preface and Circumlocution, in proper Terms; and attended with Praise, Laughter, or Admiration.

There is a natural, involuntary Distortion of the Muscles, which is the anatomical Cause of Laughter: But there is another Cause of Laughter which Decency requires, and is the undoubted Mark of a good Taste, as well as of a polite obliging Behaviour; neither is this to be acquired without much Observation, long Practice, and a sound Judgment: I did therefore once intend, for the Ease of the Learner, to set down in all Parts of the following Dialogues certain Marks, Asterisks, or Nota-bene’s (in English, Markwell’s) after most Questions, and every Reply or Answer; directing exactly the Moment when One, Two, or All the Company are to laugh: But having duly considered, that the Expedient would too much enlarge the Bulk of the Volume, and consequently the Price; and likewise that something ought to be left for ingenious Readers to find out, I have determined to leave that whole Affair, although of great Importance, to their own Discretion.

The Readers must learn by all means to distinguish between Proverbs and those polite Speeches which beautify Conversation: For, as to the former, I utterly reject them out of all ingenious Discourse. I acknowledge indeed, that there may possibly be found in this Treatise a few Sayings, among so great a Number of smart Turns of Wit and Humour, as I have produced, which have a proverbial Air: However, I hope, it will be considered, that even these were not originally Proverbs, but the genuine Productions of superior Wits, to embellish and support Conversation; from whence, with great Impropriety, as well as Plagiarism (if you will forgive a hard Word) they have most injuriously been transferred into proverbial Maxims; and therefore in Justice ought to be resumed out of vulgar Hands, to adorn the Drawing-Rooms of Princes, both Male and Female, the Levees of great Ministers, as well as the Toilet and Tea-table of the Ladies.

I can faithfully assure the Reader, that there is not one single witty Phrase in this whole Collection, which hath not received the Stamp and Approbation of at least one hundred Years, and how much longer, it is hard to determine; he may therefore be secure to find them all genuine, sterling, and authentic.

But before this elaborate Treatise can become of universal Use and Ornament to my native Country, Two Points, that will require Time and much Application, are absolutely necessary.

For, First, whatever Person would aspire to be completely witty, smart, humourous, and polite, must by hard Labour be able to retain in his Memory every single Sentence contained in this Work, so as never to be once at a Loss in applying the right Answers, Questions, Repartees, and the like, immediately, and without Study or Hesitation.

And, Secondly, after a Lady or Gentleman hath so well overcome this Difficulty, as to be never at a Loss upon any Emergency, the true Management of every Feature, and almost of every Limb, is equally necessary; without which an infinite Number of Absurdities will inevitably ensue: For Instance, there is hardly a polite Sentence in the following Dialogues which doth not absolutely require some peculiar graceful Motion in the Eyes, or Nose, or Mouth, or Forehead, or Chin, or suitable Toss of the Head, with certain Offices assigned to each Hand; and in Ladies, the whole Exercise of the Fan, fitted to the Energy of every Word they deliver; by no means omitting the various Turns and Cadence of the Voice, the Twistings, and Movements, and different Postures of the Body, the several Kinds and Gradations of Laughter, which the Ladies must daily practise by the Looking-Glass, and consult upon them with their Waiting-Maids.

My Readers will soon observe what a great Compass of real and useful Knowledge this Science includes; wherein, although Nature, assisted by a Genius, may be very instrumental, yet a strong Memory and constant Application, together with Example and Precept, will be highly necessary: For these Reasons I have often wished, that certain Male and Female Instructors, perfectly versed in this science, would set up Schools for the Instruction of young Ladies and Gentlemen therein.

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