Some of our finest writers have also been superb talkers. A few have possessed verbal skills equal to—perhaps even greater than—their writing talents.
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was an excellent talker as well as a great writer. Many, in fact, thought his conversation superior to his writing. He had a loud, deep, sonorous voice, and he spoke slowly and deliberately in an easy, natural manner. Sir John Hawkins said that if you heard Johnson talking but did not see him, you might think he was reading. Hester Thrale wrote, “No man conversed so well as he on every subject; no man so acutely discerned the reason of every fact, the motive of every action, the end of every design.”
Friend and biographer James Boswell observed that Johnson’s talk, like his writing, was always perfectly clear and perspicuous, “and his language was so accurate, and his sentences so neatly constructed, that his conversation might have been all printed without any correction.”
If asked a question, Johnson might take as long as a minute to gather his thoughts before answering, but the answer was worth the wait, for it contained insight, learning, and wisdom, all cogently expressed. This, of course, was when he conversed on easy terms with one or several close friends. In more general company, he looked upon conversation as a contest—a contest he was determined to win.
He loved to exercise his skill in debate, and he admitted to talking sometimes for victory. It didn’t always matter what side of an argument he took. He might argue one side of an issue one time, then argue the opposite side another. If anyone in company made an emphatic statement, particularly with an unwarranted air of self-assurance, Johnson went on the attack. Armed with a prodigious memory, a powerful intellect, and a gift for ridicule and wit, he invariably routed his adversary. The great portrait painter Sir Joshua Reynolds said of his friend, “He fought with all sorts of weapons; with ludicrous comparisons and similes; and if all failed, with rudeness and overbearing.”
Johnson might begin by saying something like, “Sir, you don’t see your way through that question” or, “Sir, you talk the language of ignorance.” Even when on logically or factually shaky ground, his verbal assaults proved overpowering. Oliver Goldsmith remarked, “There is no arguing with Johnson; for when his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it.” Goldsmith said on another occasion that there was no arguing with Johnson, “for, like the Tartar horse, if he does not conquer you in front, his kick from behind is sure to be fatal.”
Johnson possessed a rare virtue, however. Once the heat of disputation had subsided, if he learned that his antagonist took offense at his rudeness, he made an effort to smooth things over so as to leave no lasting resentment.
Another great talker was poet and literary critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). He could talk for hours without pausing—and often did. Being a voracious reader in a wide variety of subjects, and with an exceptionally retentive memory, he seemed able to talk at length and in great detail on any topic that arose. His discourse overflowed with anecdote, definition, illustration, and quotation.
Once Coleridge began to talk, others remained silent, most of them captivated by his eloquence. “Nobody interrupted him,” said Charles MacFarlane, “as nobody could have cut across his torrent of talk without being washed away.” Samuel C. Hall commented that he would no sooner have attempted to interrupt Coleridge than break into song while a nightingale was singing.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Charles Lamb wrote in a letter that as he was hurrying along the street one day on his way to keep an appointment, he met Coleridge, who was brimful of some new idea. He drew Lamb aside into a garden, “took me by the button of my coat and, closing his eyes, commenced an eloquent discourse, waving his right hand gently as the musical words flowed in an unbroken stream from his lips.” Lamb listened entranced until the sound of a clock striking reminded him of his appointment.
“I saw it was of no use to attempt to break away; so, taking advantage of his absorption in his subject, and—with my penknife—quietly severing the button from my coat, I decamped. Five hours afterwards, in passing the same garden on my way home, I heard Coleridge’s voice, and, on looking in, there he was, with closed eyes, the button in his fingers, and the right hand gracefully waving just as I left him.” The details may be exaggerated for comic effect, but Lamb and nearly everyone else found Coleridge’s harangues exceptionally long, though usually entrancing.
About the only ones who thought his orations tedious were those who fancied themselves good talkers but who never got a chance to speak once Coleridge got started. Lord Ward, for instance, liked to talk, but one evening at a social gathering, Coleridge spoke for two hours straight without giving Ward a chance to get in a word. Upon departing later that night, Ward remarked, “Well! I have heard of the summum bonum before, and now I know what is the summum bore-em!”
At another social gathering, one of the guests grew irritated at Coleridge’s lengthy monologue and said to his neighbor, “I’ll stop this fellow.” He then addressed the host, saying, “G—-, I’ve not forgotten my promise to give you the extract from ‘The Pandects.’ It was the ninth chapter that you were alluding to. It begins: ‘Ac veteres quidam phiosophi.’” Coleridge turned to the man and said, “Pardon, sir, there I think you are in error. The ninth chapter begins in this way, ‘Incident saepe causae.’”
The first time Thomas Carlyle heard Coleridge talk, he acknowledged him to be a forest of thoughts, “all of them ingenious in some degree, often in a high degree. But there is no method in his talk; he wanders like a man sailing among many currents, withersoever his lazy mind directs him—; and what is more unpleasant he preaches, or rather soliloquizes: he cannot speak; he can only ‘tal-k’ (so he names it).”
Carlyle, over time, remained ambivalent about Coleridge’s oratorical gifts. He later wrote, “Coleridge is a mass of richest spices, putrefied into a dunghill: I never hear his tawlk, without feeling ready to worship him and toss him in a blanket.”
Samuel Rogers, like most others, acknowledged Coleridge’s verbal gifts. Rogers records that one morning at breakfast “Coleridge talked for three hours without intermission about poetry, and so admirably that I wish every word he uttered had been written down.” Yet Rogers also conceded that Coleridge’s harangues sometimes grew unintelligible. He describes an occasion when he and William Wordsworth visited Coleridge and listened to him talk uninterruptedly for two hours. Wordsworth seemed to pay close attention, nodding his head occasionally as if in agreement with what he heard. On departing, Rogers said to Wordsworth, “Well, for my own part, I could not make head or tail of Coleridge’s oration: pray, did you understand it?”
“Not one syllable of it,” replied Wordsworth.
“How could you permit him to go on and weary himself?” asked Rogers. “Why, you are to meet him at dinner this evening.”
“I know that very well,” said Wordsworth, “but we like to take the sting out of him beforehand.”
Another unquestionably great talker was Oscar Wilde (1856-1900). His conversation consisted of brilliant witticisms, stories, repartee, and astute insights, all delivered with an abundance if Irish charm. Even those disposed not to like him personally, found his talk irresistible.
Although Frank Harris found Wilde, on their first meeting, physically repulsive, “he was a superb talker, more brilliant than any I have ever heard in England…. His talk soon made me forget his repellent physical peculiarities; indeed, I soon lost sight of them so completely that I have wondered since how I could have been so disagreeably affected by them.” In addition to Wilde’s dazzling wit, said Harris, “There was an extraordinary physical vivacity and geniality in the man, a winning charm in his gaiety, and lightning quick intelligence.”
Lillie Langtry, the famous actress, stated that Wilde possessed remarkable “stage presence.” He also had one of the most alluring voices she had ever heard, “round and soft, and full of variety and expression, and the cleverness of his remarks received added value from his manner of delivering them.”
Poet and author Richard Le Gallienne also spoke of Wilde’s “wonderful golden voice, which he modulated with elaborate self-confidence.” One of the secret charms of Wilde’s talk, said Le Gallienne, “apart from its wit and his beautiful voice, was the evidently sincere interest he took in his listener and what he also had to say. It is seldom that a good talker can listen too, and for this reason even great talkers often end in being bores.” But Wilde combined artistry with sincerity and never grew tiresome.
Irish poet W. B. Yates, on first meeting Wilde, was astonished, like many others, by his fellow countryman’s talk. Said Yates, “I never before heard a man talking with perfect sentences, as if he had written them all over night with labour and yet all spontaneous.”
Wilde once called on a woman whose husband had recently died. The woman was devastated by her loss and did not wish to receive visitors. She did not wish to see anyone, including Wilde. “I can’t,” she told her daughter. “Send him away.” But Wilde refused to leave until he had spoken with the woman, so she relented, and entered the room crying. The daughter saw Wilde take both her mother’s hands and lead her to a chair.
The daughter left the two alone, but sometime later she heard her mother laughing. “She was transformed,” said the daughter. “He had made her talk, had asked questions about my father’s last illness, and allowed her to unburden…. Then, she didn’t know how, he had begun to tell her all sorts of things, which he contrived to make interesting and amusing. ‘And then I laughed,’ she said. ‘I thought I should never laugh again.’”
Mark Twain (1835-1910) in his later years became a popular after-dinner speaker. Gala dinners were fashionable in the late nineteenth century, especially in large Eastern cities like New York, and dinner guests, following an evening of good food and wine, loved listening to Mark Twain’s droll humor and amusing yarns. He got to be so good at after-dinner speaking that he could talk extemporaneously. He wouldn’t prepare anything ahead of time—he would simply take up and embellish the subjects and themes of the speakers who had preceded him. His original and humorous observations would soon have the house in an uproar of laughter.
Mark Twain was also the chief source of entertainment at the private dinner parties he often gave in his own home. He believed that the talk was more important than the food but that guests should be relieved of the responsibility of conversation, so he was always prepared to supply it himself. “He talked delightfully, audaciously, brilliantly,” wrote Helen Keller in 1929. “His talk was fragrant with tobacco and flamboyant with profanity. I adored him because he did not temper his conversation to any femininity.”
Mark Twain once met Winston Churchill (1874-1965) at a New York dinner party. We immediately think of Churchill today, of course, as the Prime Minister of Great Britain who delivered stirring radio speeches during the Second World War, but even as a young man, he was recognized as a first-rate talker.
Churchill was about thirty and Mark Twain about seventy when they met at the New York dinner party. At one point during the course of the evening, the two retired to a separate room to smoke and talk, and those left behind began to speculate about what the result might be. One person believed that as Mark Twain was the older and more experienced of the two, he would quickly take the floor, and “Churchill’s lungs would have a half-hour’s rest for the first time in five years.”
When the two reappeared, someone asked Churchill if he had had a good time, and he eagerly answered, “Yes.” When Mark Twain was asked the same question, he hesitated a moment and then said without emotion, “I have had a smoke.”