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Old Reptile was extremely attentive to all that was said, though it was the same he had heard every night for these twenty years, and, upon all occasions, winked upon his nephew to mind what passed. This
may suffice to give the world a taste of our innocent conversation, which we spun out until about ten of the clock, when my maid came with a lantern to light me home. I could not but reflect with myself, as I was going out, upon the talkative humour of old men, and the little figure which that part of life makes in one who cannot employ his natural propensity in discourses which would make him venerable. I must own, it makes me very melancholy in company, when I hear a young man begin a story; and I have often observed, that one of a quarter of an hour long in a man of five-and-twenty, gathers circumstances every time he tells it, until it grows into a long Canterbury tale of two hours by that time he is threescore.
The only way of avoiding such a trifling and frivolous old age is, to lay up in our way to it such stores of knowledge and observation, as may make us useful and agreeable in our declining years. The mind of man in a long life will become a magazine of wisdom or folly, and will consequently discharge itself in something impertinent, or improving. For which reason, as there is nothing more ridiculous than an old trifling story-teller, so there is nothing more venerable than one who has turned his experience to the entertainment and advantage of mankind.
In short, we who are in the last stage of life, and are apt to indulge ourselves in talk, ought to consider, if what we speak be worth being heard, and endeavour to make our discourse like that of Nestor, which Homer compares to the flowing of honey for its sweetness.
I am afraid I shall be thought guilty of this excess Iain speaking of, when I cannot conclude without observing, that Milton certainly thought of this passage in Homer, when, in his description of an eloquent spirit, he says,
Sheer Lane, February 13. Silence is sometimes more significant and sublime than the most noble and most expressive eloquence, and is on many occasions the indication of a great mind. Several authors have treated of silence as a part of duty and discretion; but none of them have considered it in this light. Homer compares the noise and clamour of the Trojans, advancing towards the enemy, to the cackling of cranes, when they invade an army of pigmies. On the contrary, he makes his countrymen and favourites, the Greeks, move forward in a regular and determined march, and in the depth of silence. I find in the accounts, which are given us of some of the more eastern nations, where therinhabitants are disposed by their constitutions and climates to higher strains of thought, and more elevated raptures than what we feel in the northern regions of the world, that silence is a religious exercise among them. For when their public devotions are in the
greatest fervour, and their hearts lifted up as high as words can raise them, there are certain suspensions of sound and motion for a time, in which the mind is left to itself, and supposed to swell with such secret conceptions, as are too big for utterance. I have myself been wonderfully delighted with a masterpiece of inusic, when, in the very tumult and ferment of their harmony, all the voices and instruments have stopped short on a sudden; and after a little pause recovered themselves again as it were, and renewed the concert in all its parts. In my opinion, this short interval of silence has had more music in it than
any the same space of time before or after it. There are two instances of silence in the two greatest of poets that ever wrote, which have something in them as sublime as any of the speeches in their whole works. The first is that of Ajax, in the eleventh book of the Odyssey. Ulysses, who had been the rival of this great man in his life, as well as the occasion of his death, upon meeting his shade in the region of departed heroes, makes his submission to him with an humility next to adoration, which the other passes over with dumb, sullen majesty, and such a silence as, to use the words of Longinus, had more greatness in it than any thing he could have spoken.
The next instance I shall mention is in Virgil, where the poet doubtless imitates this silence of Ajax in that of Dido; though I do not know that any of his commentators have taken notice of it. Æneas, finding among the shades of despairing lovers the ghost of her who had lately died for him, with the wound still fresh upon her, addresses himself to her with expanded arms, floods of tears, and the most passionate professions of his own innocence, as to what had happened; all which Dido receives with the dignity and disdain of a resenting lover and an injured queen ;