THE BAS BLEU: or, Conversation (1787)


THE following trifle owes it birth and name to the mistake of a Foreigner of Distinction, who gave the literal appellation of the Bas-bleu to a small party of friends, who had been often called, by way of pleasantry, the Blue Stockings. These little Societies have been sometimes misrepresented. They were composed of persons distinguished, in general, for their rank, talents, or respectable character, who met frequently at Mrs. Vesey's and at a few other houses, for the sole purpose of conversation, and were different in no respect from other parties, but that the company did not play at cards.

May the Author be permitted to bear her grateful testimony (which will not be suspected of flattery, now that most of the persons named in this Poem are gone down to the grave) to the many pleasant and instructive hours she had the honour to pass in this company; in which learning was as little disfigured by pedantry, good taste as little tinctured by affectation, and general conversation as little disgraced by calumny, levity, and the other censurable errors with which it is too commonly tainted, as has perhaps been known in any society.

	 VESEY, of Verse the judge and friend,
	 Awhile my idle strain attend:
	 Not with the days of early Greece,
	 I mean to ope my slender piece;
5 	 The rare Symposium to proclaim
	 Which crown'd th' Athenians' social name;
	 Or how Aspasia's parties shone,
	 The first Bas-bleu at Athens known;
	 Where SOCRATES unbending sat,
10 	 With ALCIBIADES in chat;
	 And PERICLES vouchsafed to mix
	 Taste, wit, and mirth, with politics.
	 Nor need I stop my tale to show,
	 At least to readers such as you,
15 	 How all that Rome esteem'd polite,
	 Supp'd with LUCULLUS every night;
	 LUCULLUS, who, from Pontus come,
	 Brought conquests, and brought cherries home.
	 Name but the suppers in th' Appollo,
20 	 What classic images will follow!
	 How wit flew round, while each might take
	 Conchylia from the Lucrine lake;
	 And Attic Salt, and Garum Sauce,
	 And Lettuce from the Isle of Cos;
25 	 The first and last from Greece transplanted,
	 Us'd here--because the rhyme I wanted:
	 How pheasant's heads, with cost collected,
	 And Phenicopters' stood neglected,
	 To laugh at SCIPIO's lucky hit,
30 	 POMPEY's bon-mot, or CAESAR's wit!
	 Intemperance, list'ning to the tale,
	 Forgot the Mullet growing* stale;
	 And Admiration, balanc'd, hung
	 'Twixt PEACOCKS' brains, and TULLY's tongue.
35 	 I shall not stop to dwell on these,
	 But be as epic as I please,
	 And plunge at once in medias res.
	 To prove that privilege I plead,
	 I'll quote some Greek I cannot read;
40 	 Stunn'd by Authority you yield,
	 And I, not reason, keep the field.
	 Long was Society o'er-run
	 By Whist, that desolating Hun;
	 Long did Quadrille despotic sit,
45 	 That Vandal of colloquial wit;
	 And Conversation's setting light
	 Lay half-obscur'd in Gothic night.
	 At length the mental shades decline,
	 Colloquial wit begins to shine;
50 	 Genius prevails, and Conversation
	 Emerges into Reformation.
	 The vanquish'd triple crown to you,
	 BOSCAWEN sage, bright MONTAGU,
	 Divided, fell;--your cares in haste
55 	 Rescued the ravag'd realms of Taste;
	 And LYTTLETON's accomplish'd name,
	 And witty PULTENEY shar'd the fame;
	 The Men not bound by pedant rules
	 Nor Ladies Precieuses ridicules;*
60 	 For polish'd WALPOLE show'd the way,
	 How wits may be both learn'd and gay;
	 And CARTER taught the female train,
	 The deeply wise are never vain;
	 And she who SHAKSPEARE's wrongs redrest, [Elizabeth Montagu]
65 	 Prov'd that the brightest are the best.
	 This just deduction still they drew,
	 And well they practis'd what they knew;
	 Nor taste, nor wit, deserves applause,
	 Unless still true to critic laws;
70 	 Good sense, of faculties the best,
	 Inspire and regulate the rest.
	 Oh! how unlike the wit that fell,
	 RAMBOUILLET!* at thy quaint Hotel;
	 Where point, and turn, and equivoque,
75 	 Distorted every word they spoke!
	 All so intolerably bright,
	 Plain Common Sense was put to flight;
	 Each speaker, so ingenious ever,
	 'Twas tiresome to be quite so clever;
80 	 There twisted Wit forgot to please,
	 And Mood and Figure banish'd ease:
	 No votive altar smok'd to thee,
	 Chaste Queen, divine Simplicity!
	 But forc'd Conceit, which ever fails,
85 	 And, stff Antithesis prevails;
	 Uneasy rivalry destroys
	 Society's unlabour'd joys:
	 NATURE, of stilts and fetters tir'd,
	 Impatient from the Wits retir'd;
90 	 Long time the Exile houseless stray'd,
	 Till SEVIGNE receiv'd the maid.
	 Though here she comes to bless our isle,
	 Not universal is her smile.
	 Muse! snatch the Lyre which CAMBRIDGE strung,
95 	 When he the empty ballroom sung;
	 'Tis tun'd above thy pitch, I doubt,
	 And thou no music wouldst draw out:
	 Yet, in a lower note, presume
	 To sing the full dull Drawing-room.*
100 	 Where the dire Circle keeps its station,
	 Each common phrase is an oration;
	 And cracking fans, and whisp'ring Misses,
	 Compose their Conversation blisses.
	 The matron marks the goodly show,
105 	 While the tall daughter eyes the Beau--
	 The frigid Beau! Ah! luckless fair,
	 'Tis not for you that studied air;
	 Ah! not for you that sidelong glance,
	 And all that charming nonchalance;
110 	 Ah! not for you the three long hours
	 He worshipp'd the Cosmetic powers;
	 That finish'd head which breathes perfume,
	 And kills the nerves of half the room;
	 And all the murders meant to lie
115 	 in that large, languishing, grey eye;
	 Desist:--less wild th' attempt would be,
	 To warm the snows of Rhodope:
	 Too cold to feel, too proud to feign,
	 For him you're wise and fair in vain;
120 	 In vain to charm him you intend,
	 Self is his object, aim, and end.
	 Chill shade of that affected Peer,
	 Who dreaded Mirth, come safely here!
	 For here no vulgar joy effaces
125 	 Thy rage for polish, ton, and graces.
	 Cold Ceremony's leaden hand
	 Waves o'er the room her poppy wand;
	 Arrives the stranger; every guest
	 Conspires to torture the distrest;
130 	 At once they rise--so have I seen--
	 You guess the simile I mean,
	 Take what comparison you please,
	 The crowded streets, the swarming bees,
	 The pebbles on the shores that lie,
135 	 The stars which form the galaxy;
	 These serve t' embellish what is said,
	 And show, besides, that one has read;--
	 At once they rise--th' astonish'd guest
	 Back in a corner slinks, distrest;
140 	 Scar'd at the many bowing round,
	 And shock'd at her own voice's sound,
	 Forgot the thing she meant to say,
	 Her words, half-utter'd, die away;
	 In sweet oblivion down she sinks,
145 	 And of her next appointment thinks.
	 While her loud neighbour on the right,
	 Boasts what she has to do to-night;
	 So very much, you'd swear her pride is
	 To match the labours of ALCIDES; 	[Hercules]
150 	 'Tis true, in hyperbolic measure,
	 She nobly calls her labours Pleasure;
	 In this unlike ALCMENA's son,
	 She never means they should be done;
	 Her fancy of no limits dreams,
155 	 No ne plus ultra stops her schemes;
	 Twelve! she'd have scorn'd the paltry round,
	 No Pillars would have marked her bound;
	 CALPE and ABYLA, in vain
	 Had nodded cross th' opposing main; [Straits of Gibraltar]
160 	 A circumnavigator she
	 On Ton's illimitable sea.  [haut ton = high society]
	 We pass the pleasures vast and various.
	 Of Routs, not social, but gregarious;
	 Where high heroic self-denial
165 	 Sustains her self-inflicted trial.
	 Day lab'rors! what an easy life,
	 To feed ten children and a wife!
	 No--I my juster pity spare
	 To the night lab'rer's keener care;
170 	 And, pleas'd, to gentler scenes retreat,
	 Where Conversation holds her seat.
	 Small were that art which would ensure
	 The Circle's boasted quadrature!
	 See VESEY's* plastic genius make
175 	 A Circle every figure take;
	 Nay, shapes and forms, which would defy
	 All science of Geometry;
	 Isoceles, and Parallel,
	 Names, hard to speak, and hard to spell!
180 	 Th' enchantress wav'd her wand, and spoke!
	 Her potent wand the Circle broke:
	 The social Spirits hover round,
	 And bless the liberated ground.
	 Ask you what charms this gift dispense?
185 	 'Tis the strong spell of COMMON SENSE.
	 Away dull Ceremony flew,
	 And with her bore Detraction too.
	 Nor only Geometric Art,
	 Does this presiding power impart;
190 	 But Chemists too, who want the essence,
	 Which makes or mars all coalescence,
	 Of her the secret rare might get,
	 How different kinds amalgamate:
	 And he, who wilder studies chose,
195 	 Find here a new metempsychose;
	 How forms can other forms assume,
	 Within her Pythagoric room;
	 Or be, and stranger is th' event,
	 The very things which nature meant;
200 	 Nor strive, by art and affectation,
	 To cross their genuine destination.
	 Here sober Duchesses are seen,
	 Chaste Wits, and Critics void of spleen;.
	 Physicians, fraught with real science,
205 	 And Whigs and Tories in alliance;
	 Poets, fulfilling Christian duties,
	 Just Lawyers, reasonable Beauties;
	 Bishops who preach, and Peers who pay,
	 And Countesses who seldom play;
210 	 Learn'd Antiquaries, who, from college,
	 Reject the rust, and bring the knowledge;
	 And, hear it, age, believe it, youth,
	 Polemics, really seeking truth;
	 And Travellers of that rare tribe,
215 	 Who've seen the countries they describe;
	 Who study'd there, so strange their plan,
	 Not plants, nor herbs alone, but man;
	 While Travellers, of other notions,
	 Scale mountain-tops, and traverse oceans;
220 	 As if, so much these themes engross,
	 The study of mankind--was Moss.
	 Ladies who point, nor think me partial,
	 An Epigram as well as MARTIAL;
	 Yet in all female worth succeed,
225 	 As well as those who cannot read.
	 Right pleasant were the task, I ween,
	 To name the groupes which fill the scene;
	 But Rhyme's of such fastidious nature,
	 She proudly scorns all Nomenclature,
230 	 Nor grace our Northern names her lips,
	 Like HOMER's Catalogue of Ships.
	 Once--faithful Memory! heave a sigh,
	 Here ROSCIUS gladden'd every eye. 	[David Garrick]
	 Why comes not MARO? Far from town,
235 	 He rears the Urn to Taste, and BROWN;
	 Plants Cypress round the Tomb of GRAY,
	 Or decks his English Garden gay; [William Mason]
	 Whose mingled sweets exhale perfume,
	 And promise a perennial bloom.
240 	 Here, rigid CATO*, awful Sage!
	 Bold Censor of a thoughtless age,
	 Once dealt his pointed moral round,
	 And, not unheeded, fell the sound;
	 The Muse his honour'd memory weeps,
245 	 For CATO now with ROSCIUS sleeps!
	 Here once HORTENSIUS* lov'd to sit,
	 Apostate now from social Wit:
	 Ah! why in wrangling senates waste
	 The noblest parts, the happiest taste?
250 	 Why Democratic Thunders wield,
	 And quit the Muse's calmer field?
	 Taste thou the gentler joys they give,
	 With HORACE, and with LELIUS live.*
	 Hail, CONVERSATION, soothing Power, 
255 	 Sweet Goddess of the social hour!
	 Not with more heart-felt warmth, at least,
	 Does LELIUS bend, thy true High Priest;
	 Than I the lowest of thy train,
	 These field-flowers bring to deck thy fane;
260 	 Who to thy shrine like him can haste,
	 With warmer zeal, or purer taste?
	 O may thy worship long prevail,
	 And thy true votaries never fail!
	 Long may thy polish'd altars blaze
265 	 With wax-lights' undiminish'd rays!
	 Still be thy nightly offerings paid,
	 Libations large of Lemonade.
	 On silver vases, loaded, rise
	 The biscuits' ample sacrifice.
270 	 Nor be the milk-white streams forgot
	 Of thirst-assuaging, cool orgeat;
	 Rise, incense pure from fragrant Tea,
	 Delicious incense, worthy Thee!
	 Hail, Conversation, heav'nly fair,
275 	 Thou bliss of life, and balm of care,
	 Still may thy gentle reign extend,
	 And taste with wit and science blend!
	 Soft polisher of rugged man,
	 Refiner of the social plan;
280 	 For thee, best solace of his toil,
	 The sage consumes his midnight oil;
	 And keeps late vigils to produce
	 Materials for thy future use;
	 Calls forth the else neglected knowledge,
285 	 Of school, of travel, and of college.
	 If none behold, ah! wherefore fair?
	 Ah! wherefore wise, if none must hear?
	 Our intellectual ore must shine,
	 Not slumber idly in the mine.
290 	 Let education's moral mint
	 The noblest images imprint;
	 Let taste her curious touchstone hold,
	 To try if standard be the gold;
	 But 'tis thy commerce, Conversation,
295 	 Must give it use by circulation;
	 That noblest commerce of mankind,
	 Whose precious merchandize is MIND!
	 What stoic traveller would try
	 A sterile soil, and parching sky,
300 	 Or dare th' intemperate Northern zone,
	 If what he saw must ne'er be known?
	 For this he bids his home farewell;
	 The joy of seeing is to tell.
	 Trust me, he never would have stirr'd,
305 	 Were he forbid to speak a word;
	 And Curiosity would sleep,
	 If her own secrets she must keep
	 The bliss of telling what is past
	 Becomes her rich reward at last.
310 	 Who'd mock at death, at danger smile,
	 To steal one peep at Father Nile;
	 Who, at Palmira, risk his neck,
	 Or search the ruins of Balbec
	 If these must hide old Nilus' fount,
315 	 Nor Lybian tales at home recount;
	 If those must sink their learned labour,
	 Nor with their ruins treat a neighbour?
	 Range--study--think do all we can
	 Colloquial pleasures are for man.
320 	 Yet not from low desire to shine
	 Does Genius toil in learning's mine;
	 Not to indulge in idle vision,
	 But strike new light by strong collision.
	 Of CONVERSATION, wisdom's friend,
325 	 This is the object and the end,
	 Of moral truth, man's proper science,
	 With sense and learning in alliance,
	 To search the depths, and thence produce
	 What tends to practice and to use.
330 	 And next in value we shall find
	 What mends the taste and forms the mind.
	 If high those truths in estimation,
	 Whose search is crown'd with demonstration;
	 To these assign no scanty praise,
335 	 Our taste which clear, our views which raise.
	 For grant that mathematic truth
	 Best balances the mind of Youth;
	 Yet scarce the truth of Taste is found
	 To grow from principles less sound.
340 	 O'er books the Mind inactive lies,
	 Books, the Mind's food, not exercise!
	 Her vigorous wing she scarcely feels,
	 'Till use latent strength reveals;
	 Her slumb'ring energies can't forth,
345 	 She springs, she mounts, she feels her worth;
	 And, at her new-found powers elated,
	 Thinks them not rous'd, but new created.
	 Enlighten'd spirits! you, who know
	 What charms from polish'd converse flow,
350 	 Speak, for you can, the pure delight
	 When kindling sympathies unite;
	 When correspondent tastes impart
	 Communion sweet from heart to heart;
	 You ne'er the cold gradations need
355 	 Which vulgar souls to union lead;
	 No dry discussion to unfold
	 The meaning caught ere well 'tis told:
	 In taste, in learning, wit, or science,
	 Still kindred souls demand alliance;
360 	 Each in the other joys to find
	 The image answering to his mind.
	 But sparks electric only strike
	 On souls electrical alike;
	 The flash of intellect expires,
365 	 Unless it meet congenial fires:
	 The language to th' Elect alone
	 Is, like the Mason's mystery, known;
	 In vain th' unerring sign is made
	 To him who is not of the Trade.
370 	 What lively pleasure to divine
	 The thought implied, the hinted line,
	 To feel Allusion's artful force,
	 And trace the image to its source.
	 Quick Memory blends her scatter'd rays,
375 	 'Till Fancy kindles at the blaze;
	 The works of ages start to view,
	 And ancient Wit elicits new.
	 But wit and parts if thus we praise,
	 What nobler altars should we raise.
380 	 Those sacrifices could we see
	 Which wit, O Virtue! makes to thee.
	 At once the rising thought to dash,
	 To quench at once the bursting flash!
	 The shining mischief to subdue,
385 	 And lose the praise and pleasure too!
	 Though Venus' self, could you detect her,
	 Imbuing with her richest nectar,
	 The thought unchaste to check that thought,
	 To spurn a fame so dearly bought,
390 	 This is high Principle's controul!
	 This is true continence of Soul!
	 Blush, heroes, at your cheap renown,
	 A vanquish'd realm, a plunder'd town!
	 Your conquests were to gain a name,
395 	 This conquest triumphs over Fame;
	 So pure its essence, 'twere destroy'd
	 If known, and if commended, void.
	 Amidst the brightest truths believ'd,
	 Amidst the fairest deeds achiev'd,
400 	 Shall stand recorded and admir'd,
	 That Virtue sunk what Wit inspir'd.
	 But let the letter'd, and the fair,
	 And, chiefly, let the WIT beware;
	 You, whose warm spirits never fail,
405 	 Forgive the hint which ends my tale:
	 O shun the perils which attend
	 On wit, on warmth, and heed your friend.
	 Though Science nurs'd you in her bowers,
	 Though Fancy crown your brow with flowers,
410 	 Each thought though bright invention fill,
	 Though Attic bees each word distil;
	 Yet, if one gracious power refuse
	 Her gentle influence to infuse;
	 If she withhold her magic spell,
415 	 Nor in the social circle dwell;
	 In vain shall listening crowds approve,
	 They'll praise you, but they will not love.
	 What is this power you're loth to mention,
	 This charm, this witchcraft? 'tis ATTENTION:
420 	 Mute Angel, yes; thy looks dispense
	 The silence of intelligence;
	 Thy graceful form I well discern,
	 In act to listen and to learn;
	 'Tis thou for talents shalt obtain
425 	 That pardon Wit would hope in vain:
	 Thy wondrous power, thy secret charm,
	 Shall Envy of her sting disarm;
	 Thy silent flattery sooths our spirit,
	 And we forgive eclipsing merit;
430 	 Our jealous souls no longer burn,
	 Nor hate thee, though thou shine in turn;
	 The sweet atonement screens the fault,
	 And love and praise are cheaply bought.
	 With mild complacency to hear,
435 	 Though somewhat long the tale appear,
	 The dull relation to attend,
	 Which mars the story you could mend;
	 'Tis more than wit, 'tis moral beauty,
	 'Tis pleasure rising out of duty.
440 	 Nor vainly think the time you waste,
	 When temper triumphs over taste.
32. Seneca says, that in his time the Romans were arrived at such a pitch of luxury, that the Mullet was reckoned stale which did not die in the hands of the guest. 59. See MOLlERE's Comedy. 73. The Society at the Hotel de RAMBOUILLET, though composed of the most polite and ingenious persons in France, was much tainted with affectation and false taste. See VOITURE, MENAGE, &c. The late Earl of MANSFIELD told the Author, that when he was Ambassador at Paris, he was assured that it had not been unusual for those persons of a purer taste, who frequented these Assemblies, to come out from their Society so weary of wit and laboured ingenuity, that they used to express the comfort they felt in their emancipation, by saying,-- Allons! faisons des solecismes!" 99. These dull and formal parties now scarcely exist, having been swallowed up in the reigning multitudinous Assemblies. 174. This amiable Lady was remarkable for her talent in breaking the formality of a circle, by inviting her parties to form themselves into little separate groupes. 240. Dr. Johnson. 246. This was written in the year 1787, when Mr. EDMUND BURKE had joined the then opposition. 253. Horace Walpole--Sir William Weller Phelps.