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No. 077 [from The Spectator]
by [?]

No. 77
Tuesday, May 29, 1711.
‘Non convivere licet, nec urbe tota

Quisquam est tam prope tam proculque nobis.’


My Friend WILL HONEYCOMB is one of those Sort of Men who are very often absent in Conversation, and what the French call a reveur and a distrait. A little before our Club-time last Night we were walking together in Somerset Garden, where WILL, had picked up a small Pebble of so odd a Make, that he said he would present it to a Friend of his, an eminent Virtuoso. After we had walked some time, I made a full stop with my Face towards the West, which WILL, knowing to be my usual Method of asking what’s a Clock, in an Afternoon, immediately pulled out his Watch, and told me we had seven Minutes good. We took a turn or two more, when, to my great Surprize, I saw him squirr away his Watch a considerable way into the Thames, and with great Sedateness in his Looks put up the Pebble, he had before found, in his Fob. As I have naturally an Aversion to much Speaking, and do not love to be the Messenger of ill News, especially when it comes too late to be useful, I left him to be convinced of his Mistake in due time, and continued my Walk, reflecting on these little Absences and Distractions in Mankind, and resolving to make them the Subject of a future Speculation.

I was the more confirmed in my Design, when I considered that they were very often Blemishes in the Characters of Men of excellent Sense; and helped to keep up the Reputation of that Latin Proverb, [1] which Mr. Dryden has Translated in the following Lines:

Great Wit to Madness sure is near ally’d,
And thin Partitions do their Bounds divide.

My Reader does, I hope, perceive, that I distinguish a Man who is Absent, because he thinks of something else, from one who is Absent, because he thinks of nothing at all: The latter is too innocent a Creature to be taken notice of; but the Distractions of the former may, I believe, be generally accounted for from one of these Reasons.

Either their Minds are wholly fixed on some particular Science, which is often the Case of Mathematicians and other learned Men; or are wholly taken up with some Violent Passion, such as Anger, Fear, or Love, which ties the Mind to some distant Object; or, lastly, these Distractions proceed from a certain Vivacity and Fickleness in a Man’s Temper, which while it raises up infinite Numbers of Ideas in the Mind, is continually pushing it on, without allowing it to rest on any particular Image. Nothing therefore is more unnatural than the Thoughts and Conceptions of such a Man, which are seldom occasioned either by the Company he is in, or any of those Objects which are placed before him. While you fancy he is admiring a beautiful Woman, ’tis an even Wager that he is solving a Proposition in Euclid; and while you may imagine he is reading the Paris Gazette, it is far from being impossible, that he is pulling down and rebuilding the Front of his Country-house.

At the same time that I am endeavouring to expose this Weakness in others, I shall readily confess that I once laboured under the same Infirmity myself. The Method I took to conquer it was a firm Resolution to learn something from whatever I was obliged to see or hear. There is a way of Thinking if a Man can attain to it, by which he may strike somewhat out of any thing. I can at present observe those Starts of good Sense and Struggles of unimproved Reason in the Conversation of a Clown, with as much Satisfaction as the most shining Periods of the most finished Orator; and can make a shift to command my Attention at a Puppet-Show or an Opera, as well as at Hamlet or Othello. I always make one of the Company I am in; for though I say little myself, my Attention to others, and those Nods of Approbation which I never bestow unmerited, sufficiently shew that I am among them. Whereas WILL. HONEYCOMB, tho’ a Fellow of good Sense, is every Day doing and saying an hundred Things which he afterwards confesses, with a well-bred Frankness, were somewhat mal a propos, and undesigned.