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“I am got eight miles from our famous metropolis to a country
parson's, to whom I gave a city living such as an English chaplain would leap at. I retired thither for the public good, having two great works in hand ; one to reduce the whole politeness, wit, humour, and style of England into a short system for the use of all persons of quality, and particularly the maids of honour...." Swift to Gay and the Duchess of Queensberry, Aug. 28, 1731. Swift presented the manuscript to Mrs. Barber,—“one of four poetesses in this town, and all citizens' wives; but she has the vogue of being the best,”—who was then in great poverty, to make what she could by its publication (1738). The first half of the Introduction, and part of the first Dialogue, sufficiently explain this caricature of the “small talk” of the day.
A Smylife has been chiefly spent in consulting the
of my 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 laboured 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, noon, or evenings.
I have passed perhaps more time than any other man of my age and country in visits and assemblies, 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 occasioned 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 surprising sentence; another is more dexterous in seconding; a third can fill up the gap with laughing, or commending
what has been said : thus fresh hints may be started, and the ball of the 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 gen meeting, that the conversation falls and drops to nothing, like a fire without supply of fuel ! This is what we all 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 III., of ever-glorious and immortal memory, who rescued three kingdoms from popery and slavery, when, being about the age of sixand-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 house 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, or (which to me was of the highest moment) became 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 in 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 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 foresee they will object, that I have inserted many answers and replies, which are neither witty, humorous, polite, nor 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 enrich 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, 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 has 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 entirely 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 assembly 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 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 benes (in English, mark-wells) after most