Writers Who Were NOT Great Talkers

We tend to assume that great writers must also be great talkers—that a fluent pen must indicate likewise a fluent tongue.  But this is not always the case.

 

“There are men,” wrote Samuel Johnson, “whose powers operate only at leisure and in retirement, and whose intellectual vigour deserts them in conversation.”  There are those, he continued, “whose bashfulness restrains their exertion, and suffers them not to speak till the time of speaking is past.”

 

Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400), while a great poet, was apparently not a great talker.  Either he talked little in company, or what he had to say fell short of the genius displayed in The Canterbury Tales and other works.  The Countess of Pembroke, daughter of Edward III, reportedly used to tease him that his silence was more agreeable to her than his talk.

 

 

Chaucer

 

 

Although Alexander Pope (1688-1744) is regarded as one of the great talkers in verse, his conversation apparently contained little that was noteworthy.  Samuel Johnson found it remarkable that so much should be known about what he wrote and so little about what he said, “nothing either pointed or solid, either wise or merry.”

 

In this respect, Pope resembled John Dryden (1631-1700), who wrote numerous tragedies, comedies, religious poetry, satiric verse, historical verse, criticism, and translations of ancient Greek and Roman classics.  He was made Poet Laureate by Charles II in 1668.  One might expect so versatile and prolific an author to be a fluent talker as well.  Yet Dryden confessed, “My conversation is slow and dull, my humour saturnine and reserved; in short, I am none of those who endeavour to break jests in company or make repartees.”

 

 

Dryden, John

John Dryden

 

 

Johnson attributed some of Dryden’s reserve to self-complacency and an awareness of his own merit: “He probably did not offer his conversation because he expected it to be solicited.”  Johnson claimed that Dryden was so taken with his own greatness “as made him unwilling to expose it to neglect or violation.”

 

Dryden, however, attributed his reserve to natural shyness.  “For my own part,” he said, “I never could shake off the rustic bashfulness which hangs upon my nature.”  A contemporary poet probably came near the mark in making Dryden observe,

 

Nor wine nor love could ever see me gay;

To writing bred, I knew not what to say.

 

 

Another writer whose natural shyness inhibited his talk was Joseph Addison (1672-1719), perhaps the finest prose stylist in the English language.  In addition to writing numerous periodical essays, poetry, and a highly-successful tragedy, Addison served several terms as a Member of Parliament.  Yet he did not distinguish himself as a parliamentary debater.  He once began, “Mr. Speaker, I conceive—I conceive, sir—sir, I conceive—.”  At which point a colleague interjected, “The right honorable secretary of state has conceived thrice and brought forth nothing.”

 

 

Addison2

 

 

Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774), unlike Dryden and Addison, was usually not inhibited by shyness.  His problem, when it came to conversation, was a lack of reserve.  No one questioned his exceptional writing ability.  His clear and engaging style, in both poetry and prose, remains a delight to read.  But in conversation, he often prattled away, little knowing or caring what he said and heedless of where his words took him.  As a consequence, he often appeared silly and absurd in company, the exact opposite to what he seemed in print.  This prompted Johnson to say of him, “No man was more foolish when he had not a pen in his hand, or more wise when he had.”

 

Johnson once remarked to James Boswell, “The misfortune of Goldsmith in conversation is this: he goes on without knowing how he is to get off.”

 

“I like very well to hear honest Goldsmith talk away carelessly,” replied Boswell.

 

“Why, yes, Sir; but he should not like to hear himself.”

 

 

Goldsmith

Oliver Goldsmith

 

 

Goldsmith would sometimes get into a debate with Johnson or someone else and usually get bested, for his impetuosity hurried him into contradictions or ridiculous statements.  When he got caught in an absurdity it made him all the more flustered, and soon he would be, in Johnson’s phrase, “as irascible as a hornet.”  Johnson remarked that what Goldsmith said of himself was true—“he always gets the better when he argues alone; meaning, that he is master of a subject in his study, and can write well upon it; but when he comes into company, grows confused, and unable to talk.”

 

One evening at a dinner party, a servant brought a dish of peas to the table that had turned yellow in cooking.  Someone suggested they be sent to Hammersmith, for that was the way to Turnham Green.  (Hammersmith and Turnham Green were villages on the outskirts of London.)   Goldsmith thought this an excellent joke and asked permission to spring it on Edmund Burke, who loved a pun.

 

The next time he dined at Burke’s and the vegetables were brought in, Goldsmith hastily announced that they ought to be sent to Hammersmith: “That is the way to make ‘em green.”   Everyone looked blank.  “I mean that is the road to turn ‘em green.”  Still, no one got the point, and Goldsmith, flustered and embarrassed, stood up and left the table.

 

David Garrick, the actor, wrote the following imaginary epitaph for Goldsmith:

 

Here lies Nolly Goldsmith, for shortness call’d Noll,

Who wrote like an angel but talk’d like poor Poll.

 

 

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was far from being a careless talker like Goldsmith.  Yet neither was he inarticulate.  He could sometimes wax eloquent when talking about nature with a person sympathetic to what he had to say, but he had little patience for small talk and parlor-room chitchat.  One friend characterized him as “laconic” and another labeled his concise manner of talk “sententious and original.”

 

“I could never be a half hour in his company,” said a woman acquaintance, “without hearing what I could never forget.  His tongue, like a Damascus blade, was hardly fit for ordinary use, but it shaped or severed at a blow.”  Another acquaintance described Thoreau’s talk as “a staccato style of speech, every word coming separately and distinctly, as if preserving the same cool isolation in the sentence that the speaker did in society; but the words were singularly apt and choice.”

 

 

Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau

 

 

Friend and fellow townsman Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of him, “It is curious that Thoreau goes to a house to say with little preface what he has just read or observed, delivers it in lump, is quite inattentive to any comment or thought which any of the company offer on the matter, nay, is merely interrupted by it, &, when he has finished his report, departs with precipitation.”

 

Novelist William Dean Howells when a young man traveled from Ohio to Massachusetts expressly to talk with the leading New England Transcendentalists.  He met Thoreau, later describing him as “a quaint, stump figure of a man . . . with tossed hair, a distraught eye, and a fine aquilinity of profile.”

 

Howells was not able to strike up much conversation with the Concord recluse, however: “He tried to place me geographically after he had given me a chair not quite so far off as Ohio, though still across the whole room, for he sat against one wall, and I against the other; but apparently he failed to pull himself out of his revery by the effort, for he remained in a dreamy muse, which all my attempts to say something fit about John Brown and Walden Pond seemed only to deepen upon him.”

 

Another Concord resident, novelist and short story writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), was often described by those who knew him as private, solitary, quiet, and socially awkward.  He was not unfriendly nor misanthropic, only extremely shy.  Said Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Speech seemed like a kind of travail to [him].  One must harpoon him like a cetacean with questions to make him talk at all.  Then the words came from him at last, with bashful manifestations, like those of a young girl, almost,—words that gasped themselves forth, seeming to leave a great deal more behind them than they told, and died out, discontented with themselves.”

 

 

Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne

 

 

Writer and editor George William Curtis recounted an incident in which Thoreau and Emerson called on Hawthorne at the Old Manse.  The two visitors were shown into a small parlor and Hawthorne soon entered.  “Each of the guests sat upright in his chair like a Roman senator,” wrote Curtis, “Hawthorne, like a Dacian king.”  Due to Hawthorne’s shyness, a melancholy pall quickly settled over the gathering.  “The host sat perfectly still, or occasionally propounded a question which Thoreau answered accurately, and there the thread broke short off.”  Emerson delivered a few cogent sentences, but the entire visit turned out to be, in Curtis’s words, “a great failure.”

 

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) was not particularly shy nor inarticulate, though like Thoreau he could sometimes be laconic.   A young and enthusiastic female admirer once had the opportunity to accompany the great poet on a walk round his old English garden at Aldworth.  They made one circuit in complete silence, she afraid to speak for fear of losing some priceless observation.  Upon returning to their starting point, Tennyson abruptly remarked, “Coals are very dear,” to which the young lady remained silent.

 

After another trip round the garden, Tennyson suddenly exclaimed, “I get all my meat from London.”  After another long silence, he halted before a cluster of drooping carnations, and she listened attentively for some remark she could always cherish, but all Tennyson said was, “It’s those cursed rabbits.”  And that was the extent of Tennyson’s conversation on that particular occasion.

 

 

Tennyson

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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