By David Randall
The Concept of Conversation
In Roman days the leisured noble’s speech
Was conversation, sermo, where all spoke
To seek out truth, with each persuading each
To maintain chat by wooing phrase and joke.
This style of speech in time became a mode
Applied (see Yeats) upon a widening gyre
Of courts and salons till it overflowed
All bounds, the speaking world’s new sire.
Both men and once-mute women now revealed
By free consent full knowledge of their hearts;
This gift was power which they now could wield
To judge together all the human arts.
The scepter gave way to the reticule:
Sweet friendship’s converse was a claim to rule.
The Conversational Enlightenment
The saloniers who scraped to Louis Grand
Made conversation chic, the monde’s ideal,
A speech that spread to every rank and land
To mark who was, and who was not, genteel.
Such chat became the age’s metaphor
For how to teach, how to philosophize,
How dance on stage, how set a room’s décor,
How write, how sing, how frame a garden’s skies.
France forged the public all-embracing speech
That judged with reason on affairs of state;
But sermo’s spirit, each persuading each,
Fled westward when time came to emigrate.
America became the incarnation
Of mankind’s universal conversation.
David Randall is Director of Research at the National Association of Scholars. The Concept of Conversation: From Cicero’s Sermo to the Grand Siècle’s Conversation published in 2018 and The Conversational Enlightenment: The Reconception of Rhetoric in Eighteenth-Century Thought publishes in March 2019.