Conversation "A Fool Must Now And Then Be Right, By Chance"

Stephen Miller

"A Fool Must Now And Then Be Right, By Chance"

Context: This poem was written during the first months of the poet's association with Lady Austen, who encouraged Cowper to extend himself as a poet, telling him that he was capable of writing about any subject he chose. In Conversation Cowper suggests that the ability to be a good conversationalist is a gift from the Deity, rather than an art to be learned. The suggestion is not surprising, inasmuch as Cowper was a highly religious man. He notes, however, that a person must be willing to learn, in order to cultivate the heaven-sent gift. He is also of the opinion that talking is not necessarily conversation: "Words learn'd by rote a parrot may rehearse, / But talking is not always to converse." Language, Cowper goes on to say, is a "sacred interpreter of human thought" which few respect or use as carefully as they should. Particularly, he maintains, we should not use the gift of language for adulterous purposes, either in youth or age. In a verse paragraph near the beginning of the poem Cowper asks help of whatever powers there may be who govern human speech:

Ye pow'rs who rule the tongue, if such there are,
And make colloquial happiness your care,
Preserve me from the thing I dread and hate,
A duel in the form of a debate:
The clash of arguments and jar of words,
Worse than the mortal brunt of rival swords,
Decide no question with their tedious length,
For opposition gives opinion strength,
Divert the champions prodigal of breath,
And put the peacably disposed to death.
Oh thwart me not, Sir Soph, at ev'ry turn,
Nor carp at ev'ry flaw you may discern,
Though syllogisms hang not on my tongue,
I am not, surely, always in the wrong;
'Tis hard if all is false that I advance,
A fool must now and then be right, by chance;
Not that all freedom of dissent I blame,
No–there I grant the privilege I claim.