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.

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