William Cook's didactic poem in three parts was originally published in 1796 as Conversation: a Didactic Poem. It was reprinted in 1807, and again with additions in 1813. The title "Pleasures of Conversation" appears only in 1822, in an edition that may be a reissue of 1813 — the format and number of pages are the same. In contrast to the poems in this series that imitate Rogers and Campbell, Cook's Pleasures of Conversation really is a didactic poem, its versification modeled on Pope rather than Goldsmith. The first two parts consist largely of precepts for conversing with looking foolish or giving offense. The third part however, containing verse characters of Cook's distinguished friends among Johnson's Essex-Street Club, is descriptive in the more conventional mode, concluding with some very pleasant pages on the larger social purposes of conversation. The "Poetical Portraits" had previously appeared in 1818.
The poet was born in Ireland and emigrated to London in 1766, where after a brief excursion into the law, he set up as a man of letters. He could write authoritatively on conversation, having personally known most of its best exponents in the later eighteenth century. While Cook's date of birth is not known, he would have been in his eighties in 1822.
Poetical Register for 1806-07: "Mr. Cooke's poem is not unworthy of a place in the library of a lover of poetry. It contains many sensible precepts, delivered in easy and polished verse" (1811) 546.
New Monthly Magazine: "This didactic poem is written by the author of several well-known works. The novelties in the present edition are the portraits of the principal characters of Dr. Goldsmith's club, with whom the Author, now advanced in the vale of years, was once acquainted, namely, Burke, Reynolds, Goldsmith, Burney, Wyndham, Garrick, Dr. R. Farmer, Boswell, Horsley, D. Barrington, Dr. R. Brocklesby, A Murphy, and J. Nichols. The object of the poem is to recommend assemblies of persons 'of both sexes at one another's houses, for the purpose of discussing such occasional subjects as may be useful and ornamental to society'" 6 (January 1822) 28.
Literary Chronicle: "This is a second edition, with considerable additions, of a very clever didactic poem, which we admired much, at the time of its publication, for its strong moral and amiable feeling and tendency, and which we have now again read with renewed pleasure. In the preface Mr. Cooke states the object of his work. It is to promote that species of conversation which might be agreeably and profitably conducted in assemblies of both sexes, at one another's houses, or other appropriate places, for the purpose of discussing such occasional subjects as may be useful and ornamental to society. Mr. Cooke takes a review of the state of polished society in England, as to conversation, since the revival of letters, and remarks that only two attempts have been made to introduce this system of education amongst us: the one in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, when Lylly's euphuisme became so fashionable, in consequence of her Majesty and her maids of honour conversing in the silly jargon; the other was in the reign of Charles I. when conversational parties were formed at court and disseminated amongst all the circles of the polite and fashionable. Swift considers the highest period of politeness in England to have been in the peaceable part of his reign, 'when ladies whom we find celebrated by the poets of the age, had assemblies at their houses, where persons of both sexes met to pass the evening in discoursing upon whatever agreeable subjects were occasionally started.' To the progress of commerce, and the interest that has been taken in it, by persons who have cultivated business and debate more than refined and enlivened society, Mr. Cooke attributes the want of social conversation in English society" (6 July 1822) 420.
The first part opens by announcing the subject: "What institutes can teach this varying art | And give prescriptive rules for every part?" p. 4. The speaker must make note of his audience, and avoid falling into passions that remove discretion: "Tread not on GOSSIP GROUND, and its domain, | Where busy Scandal ever loves to reign" p. 9. One must not say too little — or too much. It is bad form to offer wagers in place of arguments. One should not repeat favorite topics, or play the pedant. Quotations may be introduced, though selectively: "'Mongst strangers, lo! the well-bred scholar finds, | 'Tis the parole of literary minds" p. 21. Memory is invoked as the common source of human wisdom. Nature is the wise recourse of the conversationalist: "This cheap resource to every thinking mind, | Where pleasure and religion are combined" p. 29.
Since Nature cries "Man should not live alone
Or in the cot — or on th' imperial throne;"
Since solitude is shunn'd by all, save those
Who seek retirement to indulge their woes,
Or hide their crimes, or sacrifice to pride,
And sigh for follies they no more can guide,
Is it not strange the SKILL TO TALK should find
So few competitors amongst mankind
This master-key of every social charm,
Which opes the stores, whence wit and learning arm,
Should so neglected rust — be so unknown,
That few will grasp what most may call their own.
In every other art we wish to chin
The proud distinction of superior fame.
In all professions, zealously we strive
To keep respect and well-earned praise alive;
Yet these must wait occasions to produce
Their several claims to ornament, or use.
His muse not always can the bard enjoy,
—For where's the mistress who is never coy?—
The lawyer, prompted by his fame and fees,
Can only shine by regular degrees;
Nor can the painter always show his skill,
Nor yet the scholar wield the scholar's quill;
Ev'n he who soothes us by sweet music's strains,
And wakes, by turns, the lover's joys and pains,
Must, sometimes, sacrifice to forms and hours,
And claim assistance from confederate powers.
Whilst CONVERSATION, happily design'd,
The ready messenger from mind to mind,
Acts at all times — and by its charms can raise
The instant tribute of distinguish'd praise.
Behold the man! by genius form'd to sound
The finest notes in Conversation's round!
What heart-felt praise awaits where'er he goes!
How quickly vanish all inferior woes!
Mark but his entrance to the social board!
A joy springs up, as if by joint accord,
Each eye gives welcome as he takes his seat,
Each mind anticipates the classic treat,
Whene'er he speaks, how hush'd is every tongue,
The young grow wiser, and the old grow young,
Ev'n folly sits subdued, and would explore
Pleasure, or profit from so rich a store.
Say some such master spirit of that court,
Where Conversation makes its best report!
Where the best evidence for truth is sought,
And no appeals from folly's court are brought,
What institutes can teach this varying art
And give prescriptive rules for every part?
To tell what subjects should precisely fit
The several groups of gravity, or wit,
Would be as endless as to count the train
Who fluttering crowd round Fashion's magic fane;
Would be as arduous, as with truth to find
The several dispositions of mankind.
Perhaps to trace the errors of discourse,
Explore their bearings — properties and source,
How now inelegant they wound the ear,
And now with folly dash the mental cheer;
Such comments best — may marshal out the way,
Thus what to shun will teach us what — to say.
Ere Conversation takes a general line,
And various minds in social freedom join,
EXPLORE WITH CARE THE SEVERAL RANKS AND NAMES
OF ALL AROUND — PROFESSIONS — TASTES — AND CLAIMS,
Possess'd of these we gain the readier cue,
To pay respect where'er respect is due,
Impress'd with these — our feelings turn aside
From all that wounds, misfortune — faults — or pride.
Who would on green-ey'd jealousy declaim
Before the husband injured in his fame?
Who would recount the pangs which spendthrifts feel
Near him who lavish'd with imprudent zeal?
Or fortune claim? — or vaunt of courtly grace,
To him who lost his law-suit, or his place?
Who talk thus idly — tho' they aim no blow,
Nor urge by wanton cruelty, a foe,
Nor rage — nor malice stimulate their breast,
The deed's chance-medley mischief at the best.
If ignorance of persons — ranks — and names,
Can thus produce such inharmonious games,
How must he violate the social plan,
Who, forms unheeding, plays the ABSENT MAN?
Of him who yields to this oblivious pow'r,
What strange incongruous follies mark each hour?
Dup'd by his tongue — he counter-acts his heart,
And thoughtless of the mischief hurls the dart.
To the staid maid, whose hopes yet intervene,
The age for marriage he proclaims eighteen,
Cries "'tis the very point of bloom and prime,
And all are tabbies who surpass this time."
The insolence of health and youth he'll claim
Before the pale, debilitated frame;
To her that's homely, rave on charms of face,
To him who halts, on dignity and grace,
The pow'rs of love recount before the old,
And urge the praise of silence to the scold.
Once plung'd, in short, no end to error's found,
From mere forgetfulness of looking round.
Be present then, where'er your part's assign'd,
With equals mixed — or with superiors join'd;
This recollection gives to all their place,
And guards from such ridiculous disgrace.
Though these are failings which our thoughts betray,
And lead the mind unknowingly astray,
Another yet of ranker growth is nigh,
More dang'rous far, and asks a steadier eye,
PASSION YCLEP'D — rude — ignorant — and vain,
Whose turgid note outswells the level strain,
And like the guardless — intermeddling friend,
Betrays the cause it rashly would defend.
Avaunt infuriate! with thy sightless rage,
Which spares nor self, nor sex, nor friends, nor age,
Avaunt! and let discretion gently teach
The milder attributes of grace and speech;
Our thoughts thro' these, a grateful welcome find,
And shew the polish of a well-bred mind.
Tread not on GOSSIP GROUND, and its domain,
Where busy Scandal ever loves to reign,
And CURIOSITY, with eager ear,
Now hushing ev'ry other sense to hear,
Or circulating envious tales and lies,
As spleen — caprice — or prejudice supplies.
Be ours to leave this babbling talk behind,
Which wounds the absent, and depraves the mind,
Dissolves the links which kindred hearts should join,
And pays the utt'rer back his own base coin.
Let us, since life confirms this common fact,
"That man with man thro' every stage must act;"
To topics turn — our general wants the same—
Which best advance and dignify man's fame.
What books instruct him — or what arts improve,
How virtue charms! — How amiable is love!
What laws best govern, or what modes impart
The readiest comforts to the suff'ring heart.
Such were the themes which ancient poets sung
Which blazon'd truth, and silenc'd folly's tongue;
Such are the themes whence real joys are found,
And throw an harmony on all around.
Sluggish in mind, some ne'er will be prevail'd
To join in talk, like midnight ghosts, till hail'd;
The answer made — again like ghosts they sit,
Unmov'd by humour, argument, or wit;
In solemn silence, or in thoughtless stare,
The mere associates of an elbow chair.
Others, like actors, catch the cue with art,
To tell some story, like their neighbour's, smart—
No matter what, so it reflects the other,
And claims resemblance to its gossip brother.
Thus pair'd for contest — see the Sparlings play!
—Regardless what the audience think, or say—
Tale after tale they press with ceaseless thirst,
"Till Dunce the second, yields to Dunce the first.
Others there are who with the sage inclin'd,
Think art is long — hence every thing's defin'd
At tedious length — no matter what's the case,
Morals — or trifles — politics — or grace.
Should lovely woman as a theme arise,
They'll first declaim on forehead — lips and eyes;
Then to her bosom, like an insect steal,
And soil those beauties which they cannot feel;
Next to her waist, and then perhaps so low,
As sometimes to expatiate on her toe,
"That taper'd toe which mocks the lily's white,
And shews a nail inexplicably bright,
Rear'd by a heel of that proportion'd size,
As far excels the Medicean prize."
All this is told in such a wire-drawn phrase,
So far remov'd from amatory praise,
The picture's left unfinish'd and unknown,
Whilst "God's last — best reserve" is turn'd to stone.
Thus oft Grimalkin with her mouse will play,
Now seize in sport — now seem to turn away,
Till quite exhausted from the worrying hour,
The little victim 'scopes his tyrant's power.
Howe'er the subject turns — regard this rule,
"ASSUME NO LEAD IN CONVERSATION'S SCHOOL;"
Nor arm'd with logic-petulance, engage
ON ARGUMENT'S HIGH STILTED DANG'ROUS STAGE;
From first rate talents Argument will rise
With pow'rs, no doubt, to claim the highest prize,
Arrest the list'ning ear with magic skill,
And turn and wind the passions to its will;
Such as when BURKE and JOHNSON shew'd their might
In all the grandeur of polemic fight,
Their minds gigantic — their contention strong,
Their object fame — the fame of ancient song,
Whilst burnish'd arms, emitting classic rays,
Illum'd the judgment, and commanded praise:
When two such heroes in the lists appear,
Who had three ears, at such a time should hear.
Again, when ARGUMENT, dispos'd to play,
Turns with commanding grace from grave to gay,
Its sprightly humour — fanciful, yet true,
Arrays the subject in its happiest hue.
But sprung from Pride, and nurs'd by Learning's spleen,
—Aspiring only to be heard and seen—
When as the bully of the mind 'tis found
Thund'ring its dogmas with imperious sound,
We turn aside, with indignation stung,
And loathe this rude monopoly of tongue.
All met to please — consign this wordy war,
To wrangling Sophs — or Witlings at the bar,
All met for mutual happiness and ease,
'Tis fitting each should have his turn to please;
This cast of parts unites colloquial charms,
Gives wit its point — and wisdom all its arms.
If press'd by Argument you can't reply,
—As where's the fountain that's not sometimes dry?—
Offer no WAGER to attest your cause,
This feeble prop of Conversation's laws;
Who argue thus can little else produce
In taste, or learning — ornament, or use,
Traffic's their forte in letters as in gains,
The pride of riches — and the lack of brains,
Unconscious of this truth — "A heavy purse
In a fool's pocket is a heavy curse."
LURED BY THE FOND DESIRE TO ENTERTAIN,
NO FAVOURITE TOPIC SHOULD ASPIRE TO REIGN,
Tho' it be yours to talk with varied grace,
And state minutely every nicer case,
The repetition blurs the gloss of art,
And sinks e'en talents to a second part;
Gives dulness front to smile with vacant leer,
And malice all its promptitude to sneer,
Combines the little wits, whose cunning lies
In meanly taking genius by surprize.
NOR YET THE PEDANT PLAY — but wiser know
What's fit for use — or academic show.
Who rich and prudent ever spreads his hoard,
In purse-proud conquest, o'er the public board?
Or who that feels what's honour's best defence,
Will arrogantly meditate offence?
The scholar thus — tho' deep in classic roots,
Displays his knowledge by progressive fruits,
By judgment — taste and language — these proclaim
The steadier — chaster attributes of fame.
Nor as the PEDANT'S SHADOW idly stand,
To pick up education second hand;
Or think the PARTIAL READING OF AN HOUR
Can ape the charms of literary power.
Such may amuse — nay sometimes work its ends,
And lull the sense of unsuspicious friends,
But be the Parrot's character his praise,
Who gives his mind to such delusive ways.
He that to sounder knowledge would aspire,
And gain those wreaths which zealous bosoms fire,
With pleasing toil, and emulative rage,
Should turn with constancy the letter'd page;
See how fair science beams upon the soul,
And trace from parts the union of the whole.
For who without foundations can commence
In arts — in arms — in building — or in sense?
For want of these, tho' meant for strength, or grace,
The proudest piles must topple to their base.
Yet there are times, when topics strike the view,
As not remember'd — or as wholly new,
Where partial reading comes with friendliest aid,
To fill the pause, which memory's lapse has made,
Or add some knowledge to the general store,
Which chance, nor education gave before;
These lighter studies aim at no pretence,
And gather laurels at a cheap expense.
Some, over hostile to the pedant line,
Will every wreath of scholarship resign,
And hence would chase QUOTATION from the train
Of social talk — as insolent and vain,
Unskill'd itself — yet confident to sing,
—Soaring the wren upon the eagle's wing—
But say, discreetly us'd — who can deny
The ready vantage of this old ally?
How now discourse by judgment 'twill support,
And now by elegance of thought pay court;
And now by wit, that brighter charm display,
Which bears the cause triumphantly away.
'Mongst strangers, lo! the well-bred scholar finds,
'Tis the parole of literary minds,
The classic's sentiments, design and end
We greet — and hail him as our common friend—
"He's mine" — "He's your's" — exultingly we cry,
And feel alike — because he's our ally.
To gain this point — IMPLORE AT MEMORY'S SHRINE,
By every art which Memory may be thine;
By early study — by selection's skill,
By repetition — and determin'd will.
What, tho' at first she coyly feigns alarms,
With double energy pursue her charms,
Press — and press on, 'till like a yielding prude,
She gives up all, by time and truth subdued.
Nor think that MEMORY boasts her pow'rs aloud,
To catch the partial praises of the crowd,
A steadier friend — she loves retirement's shade,
And woos the thoughtful mind — by magic aid,
She brings with freshen'd grace before its view,
What poets sung — or what historians drew,
The hero's deeds — the sage's moral lay,
With all that valour — virtue could display.
O! Powerful Goddess! — rich in means and end,
The Poet's parent, sometimes only friend,
How oft with thee, tho' fortune turn'd aside,
Nor deign'd a favourite glance from vulgar pride;
I've met with firmness all her wanton power.
—Thyself the heroine of my pensive hour!
How oft as list'ning to thy sapient tongue,
I shar'd the triumphs manly deeds have won,
Shrunk from ambition, and her pageant car,
And mourn'd the sad calamities of war.
Here saw, how Pride uprais'd her selfish head,
Whilst misery groan'd beneath its humble shed;
There saw Humanity her gifts bestow,
And heal the sorrows of domestic woe.
Revolving next o'er Plutarch's moral page,
View'd all the manly firmness of the sage,
How mild Philosophy attun'd his breast,
And Independence cheer'd his letter'd rest,
Spurning Ambition's anxious, giddy state,
And proving virtue only makes us great.
Thus all thy records spread before my eye,
—The world's great roll, where human actions lie—
The wondrous story search'd my every part,
And grav'd such useful lessons on my heart,
Display'd content in such a charming view,
To morals, — sense — and happiness so true;
I left the little lures of pomp behind,
And felt superior fortune in my mind;
"Be this my shield" — I cried — "midst cares and strife,
My guard 'gainst evil — and my guide through life."
Nor think, ye vain, whose bosoms idly glow,
And sigh for wants which often end in woe,
Fantastic wants! which nature never nam'd,
Conceiv'd in pride — by novelties inflam'd,
Pageants of fashion, meteors of a day,
Intent on nothing — but their own display,
With whims unnumber'd as the fool's desires,
When emulation all his bosom fires,
Think not but joys await the humble line,
Where INDEPENDENCE rears its sacred shrine,
Where the still conscience gives that sweet repose,
Which casts our cares off nightly with our clothes,
Joys which surpass the meed of courtly praise,
Or useless riches — or the vulgar gaze.
Is it no joy — to scape that base-born sphere,
Where baser language wounds the modest ear,
Where Vice and Want their baneful influence spread
And Virtue scarcely lifts its drooping head?
Is it no joy to boast a liberal mind,
By books, by converse, and by taste refin'd,
From false Ambition free, from crimes of state,
And every wish that would be meanly great?
Is it no joy to prove this moral song,
"Man wants but little, nor that little long,"
Yet from that little, by a tim'd supply,
Arrest the widow's tear, the orphan's sigh,
Spread by example Charity around,
And feel its heaven-born comforts in rebound,
Thus rise by worth, respected without art,
And gain a patronage in every heart?
Is it no joy to hail the dawning day,
And view the wonders nature's works display?
The misty mountain's top — the cheering sun,
Just as his rising splendours are begun?
The feather'd choir who chaunt their Maker's praise
In the wild warblings of their matin lays,
Where every copse with artless music rings,
And every bliss is painted on their wings?
Th' enamelled meads that scent the passing gale,
And mix their fragrance with the flowery vale?
The mantling trees which climb each rising hill,
The stream that glides — or murmurs in the rill,
The spangled dew drops and the golden grain,
With all that decorate the rural plain,
With all that nature from her bounteous store
Bestows alike upon the rich and poor?
Say — can we view this ever glorious sight
Without the feel of exquisite delight?
This cheap resource to every thinking mind,
Where pleasure and religion are combined,
And not exclaim with gratitude divine,
"CREATION'S TENANT — all these scenes are mine!"?
Yes — these are joys which swell the good man's breast,
These are the hoards of which he feels possessed,
These point his duties to their noblest end
As HUSBAND — PARENT — CITZEN and FRIEND;
These tell the rich, debased by fortune's lure,
Tho' wealth oft wants — and grandeur's insecure,
That every poor man, is not therefore poor.